Murmurations – what they are, why they happen and where to see them
Look to the sky during autumn and winter and if you’re lucky, you’ll see one of nature’s most amazing sights: the starling murmuration. We’ve even enjoyed watching one soaring around Nature Detectives HQ in the last few weeks!
But what is it? Why do they do it? And how do starlings manage to perform such amazing acrobatics without crashing into each other in mid-air?
What is a starling murmuration?
It’s a huge flock of thousands of starlings, which looks a bit like a giant swarm. They swirl through the skies together just before swooping down and settling into their roost for the night.
Why do starlings form murmurations?
Murmurations are believed to act as giant signposts, attracting all the other starlings in the area so that all the birds can roost together.
But why do they do this? Well, there are lots of reasons:
- Safety in numbers - When there are thousands of birds all wheeling and turning together, it makes it much harder for predators to single out one particular bird.
- It’s warmer - Winter nights can be really chilly. But the bigger the flock, the more warmth there is to share. Large roosts are much cosier than small ones.
- A good gossip! - Starlings are very chatty, and they get together to share important information – such as where to find good feeding sites.
How many birds makes a murmuration?
While the most spectacular murmurations are made up of thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of starlings, it’s possible to have smaller murmurations made up of about 200-300 birds.
But they can be seriously massive: a murmuration of more than six million starlings was recorded in 1999/2000 at Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve in Somerset. Now that’s a lot of birds!
Why don't starlings bump into each other?
It’s a good question – just how do thousands of birds know which way to go and when to turn?
Well, each starling follows the movement of the six birds flying closest beside it. And because they have lightning-fast reactions – under 100 milliseconds – and superb spatial awareness, if one bird changes speed or direction, those around it do too. This ripples through the murmuration and means that they’re able to fly at speeds of around 20mph without crashing in mid-air.
Where to see starling murmurations
Starlings prefer to roost in sheltered places, away from predators. Think woods, reed beds, cliffs and buildings.
They don’t always roost in the same places every year, and not always in such big numbers. But there are lots of places around the country where you can see massive murmurations year after year:
- Attenborough Nature Reserve, Nottinghamshire
- Brighton Pier, West Sussex
- Aberystwyth Pier, West Wales
- Ham Wall, Somerset
- Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve, Somerset
- Fen Drayton Lakes, Cambridgeshire
- Belfast City Centre, Northern Ireland
- Leighton Moss, Lancashire
- Saltholme, Teesside
- Gretna Green, Scotland
When's the best time to see a murmuration?
Head outside during autumn and winter and look to the skies just before dusk. Keep your eyes peeled for shifting shapes spinning through the air.
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