Normally, there is not much to see at 4pm on a South Suffolk Sunday in early January but last weekend was an exception.
In the dusk sky over the road running past Melford Hall in Long Melford a wonderful wildlife spectacle was underway. Several thousand starlings had gathered and were moving together in unison like an aerial school of fish.
To me on the ground, the overall effect of these synchronised swoops and climbs was of a giant shapeshifting jellyfish moving effortlessly across the firmament as it constantly changed form; coming closer and then moving away; sometimes dark, sometimes light as the birds turned and twisted, showing mottled upper-wings and pale-fringed under-wings in quick succession. Smaller groups of starlings flew in from different directions to join the pulsing mass and swell its size.
This was a murmuration, the term for starlings gathering in such a manner. I have seen murmurations before – off the Suffolk coast near Minsmere and over the West Pier in Brighton where I used to live – but this was a first for me in our neighbourhood.
Talking to people standing next to me, I found out that this daily ritual has been going on for several weeks now – the starlings putting on a show before roosting in trees behind the walls of Melford Hall. It has obviously become a local attraction, as there must have been more than one hundred people spread along both sides of the road and over the bridge taking in the display. We were all mesmerised, unable to look away and it felt like some kind of ‘happening’ - only a short distance (as the starling flies) from the Common Lands and River Stour, so I feel justified in writing about it.
I was struck by the number of people who were obviously interested enough in the natural world to be here, and I had a sense that this wildlife phenomenon had brought folk together to share a special experience. An absurd thought also crossed my mind – that while were we staring heavenwards at the starlings, so they were keeping one eye on the human congregation below, curious to see the size of crowd they could muster with their aerobatics.
However, this impressive show was in no way intended for human entertainment.
According to the RSPB, there are a number of reasons why starlings murmurate. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators like peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands. Starlings also gather in high numbers to exchange information, such as where to find good feeding areas, and to keep each other warm during cold nights.
This would explain why starling murmurations and roosts are typically autumn and winter affairs, which start from around November and gather numbers as the weeks go on. I have no idea how long the Melford murmuration will persist, but it is worth making the effort to see them just before dusk if you are in the area.
Tracking the neighbours
The question of how starlings in murmurations stay so synchronised has taxed scientists down the ages.
Researchers have posited many theories on these incredible displays – that the birds use telepathy to stay in formation or that there is one lead starling that all the others follow.
The current perceived wisdom is that the starlings track only a small number of birds directly next to them - keeping tabs on their closest neighbours and ignoring all else. From this model, the behaviour spreads and the whole murmuration moves as one.
It is another example of nature’s ability to stun us with its brilliance – we find it difficult to understand as we tend to see things from the perspective of our own capabilities. But birds have a much higher temporal resolution than we do – meaning they can see and process that information much more quickly than humans.
Studies of murmurations are even being used to develop computer models in the burgeoning field of swarm robotics, which looks at how to get multiple robots to work together in a system. It is said this may inform areas such as construction methods, self-driving cars and even cancer treatments.