Starling murmurations are a spectacular sight, something you have to see to believe. It is one of nature’s most magnificent shows, waves of birds swirling in the sky as if they are thinking with one mind. But what exactly is a starling murmuration, and why do they do it? Find out now, including the best places to see one for yourself.
What Are Starlings?
European starlings are one of the most common birds in North America. They were first introduced to the continent by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 19th century. And since then their population has exploded. These glossy black birds are known for their aggressiveness and propensity for forming large groups called murmuration.
What is Starling Murmuration?
A starling murmuration is the gathering of tens of thousands of European starlings, where they take to the sky, performing their dazzling aerial displays. They all move together as one entity, creating lines and shapes as they blacken the sky. These breathtaking shows can last anywhere from a few minutes to close to an hour before ending suddenly as they nestle into their roosting sites. This spectacle takes place above their communal roosting sites just before dusk.
Why is it Called a Murmuration?
Murmurations are a special kind of flock. These groupings are aptly named for the low-murmur sound their wingbeats make as thousands move as one. But other than the entrancing sound, starling gatherings are different than typical flocks. They are much denser and more significant than other groups of species. And the way they move or “dance” is reminiscent of schools of fish. They do not move together as a means of travel but rather as a type of display.
Why Do Starlings Do Murmuration?
Despite what it appears, starling murmurations are not random. Their sole purpose (based on what we know so far) is to limit predation. When starlings see others forming a group over a roosting site, they are more likely to join because there is safety in numbers. While it seems as though the group moves as one, starlings exhibit collective animal behavior while still being very aware of themselves individually. Each starling is aware of its position in the formation, and without colliding into each other, they attempt to get into the group’s center where it’s the safest. The shape-shifting lines and curves are determined by a selfish motivation, get to the center and avoid being hit. So yes, they move as a collective, but it’s fueled by self-preservation.
What Time of Year Do Starlings Do Murmuration?
Starling murmurations occur once the birds arrive on their wintering grounds in Autumn and winter. You can see these displays as early as September and as late as December, depending on the location. Autumn roosting sites can contain upwards of 100,000 starlings, all swooping and diving in the setting sun. If you ever get the chance to see one, be sure to get to the site before dusk.
Where is the Best Place to See a Murmuration of Starlings?
European starlings are one of the most abundant bird species in North America, with over 200 million individuals. You can see starling murmurations anywhere in the United States, but they are most common in open spaces outside of big cities. You can also find them near cliffs, parks, reedbeds, and woodlands. But some sites are prime-watching areas.
Check out these locations for the best front-row seats to a starling murmuration:
- Saguaro National Park – Arizona
- Central Park – New York
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – Florida
- Indian River Lagoon – Florida
- Lake Calhoun – Minnesota
- Higbee Beach – New Jersey
- Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park – Illinois
- Rio Grande Valley – Texas
- Astoria Park – New York
- Sunset Lake – New York
- And many more!
Starling murmurations can happen in most areas of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. But you may have a better chance of seeing one near natural areas. Be sure to be in your spot before dusk during autumn and early winter. Don’t forget to check the weather forecast, pack warm clothes, and bring snacks or drinks. Natural displays are not known for happening right on schedule, so plan accordingly.
Are Starlings the Only Birds That Murmurate?
The term “murmuration” strictly refers to the hypnotic groupings of starlings. While many bird species form flocks, starlings are the only ones that make these unique formations. So yes, starlings are the only birds that murmurate.
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- NY Times, Available here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/04/travel/starling-murmurations.html
- PLOS One, Available here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0179277
- Sage Journals, Available here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1357034X21992846
- Nature, Available here: https://www.nature.com/articles/530419a