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Monday, 22 November 2021

Starling Murmurations
Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)

Starling Murmurations

Some may say that it is too early to be watching Christmas classics such as The Nutcracker, but there's another ballet on display this season - a bird ballet of starling murmurations!

What is a starling murmuration?
A murmuration is when hundreds or even thousands of starlings come together in a breath-taking improvised aerial dance. They swoop, ascend, dive and lift in a cloud of orchestrated patterns that once led scientists to theorise that starlings must have physic powers.

Throughout the country in October/November time, starling numbers swell as migratory birds from places like Scandinavia join our resident flocks to spend the colder months in the UK, meaning these spectacles can see up to thousands of birds dance at any one time.

Why do starlings murmurate?
We think that starlings murmurate for several reasons, namely warmth, information exchange and safety. In the autumn and winter starlings huddle together at night to share body heat and tips about where to find food - but to a predator, thousands of starlings swooping into land looks very much like a carousel buffet.

Starlings seek refuge in numbers, gathering in these swirling ballets to confuse predators much like a shoal of fish. It's much harder to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands. Being in a huge mass, swirling around the sky is confusing to predators such as sparrowhawks, peregrines or marsh harriers that may get among them. If they do, it keeps the starlings whirling around for ages.

The word 'murmuration' itself comes from the murmuring sound that all those thousands of wings make as they beat simultaneously. If you are ever standing underneath them whilst they are doing this, it is an incredible experience as you do hear a whoosh of wings - just remember to put your hood up and close your mouth as it can rain with starling poo!

Why do they not crash into one another? Well, it is to do with their reaction times. Starlings can react to each others movement in less than 100 milliseconds (as opposed to the average human reaction time of 215 milliseconds), so they avoid collisions.

When to go and see them?
Autumn roosts generally start to form in November, though this varies from site to site and more starlings tend to gather as the weeks go by. The murmurations often go on into January or February, so there's a nice open window of time for you to see one!

It's best to be at the location a bit before dusk - that's when the starlings will start to gather for the night and you'll start to see a murmuration forming.