Secrets of the Starling Murmuration Phenomenon

Humans never could, but we try.

Starling murmuration © Sharon Jones-Williams

A meeting with the magicians of dusk

My old office was in a top floor that overlooked a pine tree forest. Every night at the slip of dawn, the squealing of the starling birds would inform me that the murmuration had commenced. Hundreds of starlings adorned the skies in shape shifting swoops and swirls, circulating my building and the pine trees against the sunset tinder, a mighty dance and a personal call to the Maghrib prayer. Inconveniently loud, my colleagues would close the windows so the racket wouldn't be heard on all-important client calls. I'd stand by the window and watch, much to the dismay of my line manager who'd send the occasional, "oh lovely, back to work" smiles my way.

A murmuration for me

As I drove back from my old home to my new one, these birds took to the sky over a barren car park on a grizzly motorway stop, and I found an assurance in my journey that I never knew was missing.

© Daniel Biber, 2018 Sony World Photography Award

Purpose in Beauty

But why do these little birds insist on such parades of grandeur? We've all cast a bet; mating rituals that showcase the best of starling genes in the colder migration seasons. An intimidation exercise to starling hunters. An orienteering session. The devils that escape at day-close driving the birds apart and the angels that chase them away, allowing them to unite once more. A worshippers' pilgrimage. Maybe, like stars, their purpose is to beautify the sky with mystery and wonder for our simple minds, or they just like spreading their wings in company under a cold colourful sky. Who knows.

AP Photo/Oded Balilty, Starlings flying over Palestine

Murmuration Chasers

What leaves me considering giving up my day to job to chase these phenomena is the flawless precision of their performance, an orchestrated dance defined in hundreds of flying twirls and swoops.

All of them together, upholding their own boundaries, intrinsically aware and responsive to each other and completely respectful of each other's space the first time round. Humans never could, but we try.

And which of the proofs of your Lord will you deny?

Al-Isra verse 37 

وَلَا تَمْشِ فِي الْأَرْضِ مَرَحًا ۖ إِنَّكَ لَنْ تَخْرِقَ الْأَرْضَ وَلَنْ تَبْلُغَ الْجِبَالَ طُولًا

And do not walk upon the earth arrogantly. Indeed, you will never tear the earth [apart], and you will never reach the mountains in height.

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