UPDATE: It’s been pointed out by a couple of readers, and gleefully by the Discovery Institute, that the first video below comes from a documentary on Intelligent Design called “Flight: The genius of birds”. I didn’t know that when I posted it, and I didn’t look up the link at the end, for I was simply mesmerized by the display of murmuration. Had I known this, I would certainly have called it to the readers’ attention, but I probably still would have posted the video, with a caveat, because the visuals are spectacular. Even a blind pig, or a herd of them, can find an acorn.
The phenomenon of murmuration, which scientists are trying to explain (and starting to succeed) gives not the slightest evidence for God, so those of you who are gloating that a pro-ID video appeared on this site, just stuff it! Nobody here is going to look at that video and say, “Geez, that’s strong evidence for God!” If you do, you’re at the wrong place.
There are many unexplained behaviors in the animal kingdom, and if you’re going to take them all as evidence for God, you’re on precarious ground.
The Oxford English Dictionary has two definitions for “murmuration”:
a. The action of murmuring; the continuous utterance of low, barely audible sounds; complaining, grumbling; an instance of this. Now chiefly literary.
2. A flock (of starlings). One of many alleged group terms found in late Middle English glossarial sources, but not otherwise substantiated. Revived and popularized in the 20th cent.
So the origin of the term as a group of starlings is obscure, though I suspect it comes from of the murmuring sound such a group makes, which I’ve heard in person.
Regardless, I’ve previously posted videos of the amazing flocks of starlings that form before evening roosts, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands. And the flocks form amazing and ever-changing patterns in the air—I think of them as an avian Aurora Borealis. Here’s one of many videos you can find on YouTube:
But why do they do this? Well, it’s almost certainly for protection from predators (thick, shifting groups keep avian predators from singling out one individual, which is the way they usually hunt, since charging into a flock of birds without a designated prey can injure you), as well as using your groupmates as a way to find secure roosting sites and to keep warm when you land. We don’t know the answer, but, as Wired Science reports, we have some idea of how they do this:
Scientists had to wait for the tools of high-powered video analysis and computational modeling. And when these were finally applied to starlings, they revealed patterns known less from biology than cutting-edge physics.
Starling flocks, it turns out, are best described with equations of “critical transitions” — systems that are poised to tip, to be almost instantly and completely transformed, like metals becoming magnetized or liquid turning to gas. Each starling in a flock is connected to every other. When a flock turns in unison, it’s a phase transition.
At the individual level, the rules guiding this are relatively simple. When a neighbor moves, so do you. Depending on the flock’s size and speed and its members’ flight physiologies, the large-scale pattern changes. What’s complicated, or at least unknown, is how criticality is created and maintained.
It’s easy for a starling to turn when its neighbor turns — but what physiological mechanisms allow it to happen almost simultaneously in two birds separated by hundreds of feet and hundreds of other birds? That remains to be discovered, and the implications extend beyond birds. Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.
That is, scientists can mimic the murmuration behaviors with computers using relatively simple rules. But mimicking behaviors on a computer is not the same thing as understanding the rules that the animals use themselves. In this case they’re probably very similar, but we still don’t know why the birds turn and who initiates it, much less how they avoid banging into each other when they’re in groups of thousands of individuals separated only by a winglength.
This is clearly an evolved behavior, but the details—largely physiological and neuronal rather than evolutionary—are still obscure. And when we finally understand them—if we come to understand them—it will only add extra beauty to one of nature’s most spectacular displays.
Have a look at another murmuration:
I hope that you’re lucky enough to see one of these.