Starling murmurations: the science behind one of nature’s greatest displays



by A. Jamie Wood And Colin Beale

Watching starling murmurations as the birds swoop, dive and wheel through the sky is one of the great pleasures of a dusky winter’s evening. From Naples to Newcastle these flocks of agile birds are all doing the same incredible acrobatic display, moving in perfect synchrony. But how do they do it? Why don’t they crash? And what is the point?

Back in the 1930s one leading scientist suggested that birds must have psychic powers to operate together in a flock. Fortunately,  is starting to find some better answers.

To understand what the starlings are doing, we begin back in 1987 when the pioneering computer scientist Craig Reynolds created a simulation of a flock of birds. These “boids”, as Reynolds called his computer-generated creatures, followed only three simple rules to create their different patterns of movement: nearby birds would move further apart, birds would align their direction and speed, and more distant birds would move closer.

Some of these patterns were then used to create realistic looking  in films, starting with Batman Returns in 1992 and its swarms of bats and “army” of penguins. Crucially this model did not require any long-range guidance, or supernatural powers – only local interactions. Reynolds’s model proved a complex flock was indeed possible through individuals following basic rules, and the resulting groups certainly “looked” like those in nature. Continue reading