Flocking Behavior or Murmuration

Flocking Behavior or Murmuration
Murmuration of Common Starlings

One of the most incredible sights we frequently see in the fall of the year is the flocking behavior of birds. Starlings are one of the most visible examples, with tens of thousands forming a massive cloud of flapping wings. The term “murmuration” comes from the fact that thousands of wings flapping at once give a murmur-like sound.

National Geographic magazine (October 2021, pages 26-28) published great pictures of a starling murmuration. The magazine estimates that in their photographs, there are “tens of thousands of starlings … a quarter-mile wide, and several hundred feet tall.” The article asks the question, “What is the purpose of murmurings?” They conclude that it’s a way to avoid predators or gain a feeding advantage. Since starlings don’t eat while migrating, the magazine speculates that starling murmurations offer an advantage over the falcons that feed on starlings.

A bigger question for anyone who observes the flocking behavior of thousands of birds is how they avoid hitting each other. It seems that built into every bird is a genetically imprinted instinctive drive to synchronize their wing beat, reducing the chance of a collision. How do they navigate? I have seen a whole flock make a quick 90-degree turn in which every bird seems to have instructions of when to turn and how far.

Besides the murmuration of birds, we see flocking behavior in many forms of life. Geese fly in flocks, and salmon move upstream in groups. Insects swarm around a hive or nest to protect the hive. Wolves form a pack to bring down a large animal. There are negative swarms such as insect swarms that eat themselves out of food reserves and a bison herd running off a cliff.

Our understanding of the genetic drives designed into living things is very primitive. However, it is clear that, at least in some situations, the grouping of animals presents advantages. Watching starlings move like a giant cloud and hearing their synchronized wing beats, one has to be amazed at the design and complexity God put into all of His creatures. We are continually reminded in Romans 1:20 that “the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made … so the (unbeliever) is without excuse.”

John N. Clayton © 2021