Terrance Heath

Mesmerizing Murmurmation

Filed By Terrance Heath | November 09, 2011 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: murmurating, starlings

I stumbled across this while going through my RSS feeds, and found it rather hypnotic.

They’re starlings, and their murmurating.

European Starlings Overhead B&W

A "murmuration" of starlings, as this phenomenon is known, must be one of the most magical, yet underrated, wildlife spectacles on display in winter. Impenetrable as the flock's movements might seem to the human eye, the underlying maths is comparatively straightforward. Each bird strives to fly as close to its neighbours as possible, instantly copying any changes in speed or direction. As a result, tiny deviations by one bird are magnified and distorted by those surrounding it, creating rippling, swirling patterns. In other words, this is a classic case of mathematical chaos (larger shapes composed of infinitely varied smaller patterns). Whatever the science, however, it is difficult for the observer to think of it as anything other than some vast living entity.

…The logic behind this spectacular behaviour is simple: survival. Starlings are tasty morsels for peregrines, merlins and sparrowhawks. The answer is to seek safety in numbers, gathering in flocks and with every bird trying to avoid the edge where adept predators can sometimes snatch a victim.

What I don’t get is why people were so bothered by the soundtrack on the video. Maybe I’m just not a purist about that kind of thing, but it seemed natural to me, because the movement seems so much like a dance. Granted, I supposed I could have supplied my own imaginary soundtrack, but the one supplied didn’t bother me.

As for the question asked by the NYT’s Andrew Revkin:

What have you witnessed on this living planet that takes your breath away?

There are a few things that come to mind.

“Thundersnow.”

Sunrises.

And dolphins.

Last month, we spend a week at a nearby beach town, as a family vacation. We took the kids to the beach every day that the weather was nice.

leaping_dolphinsOn the first day, and every day thereafter, we were treated to a dolphin sighting. Someone pointed them out to me, and I pointed them out to the boys. They were so far away that the looked like shadows against the sun. Yet,when we looked out at the water, we could just see their backs and their dorsal fins when they came up for air. There was a whole school of them on the move.

I couldn't help noting how often then needed to come up for air. When Parker asked why they did that, I explained to him that even though they live in the water, Dolphins are mammals, and need to breathe air just like do. So, they come up to the surface, take a breath through their blowholes, and then go back under. When they run out of air, they have to surface again.

Every day, we saw the dolphins. And every day, they came a little close to the shore. They were no longer shadows after a few days, and seemed a bit more real as they swam closer to shore, and we could see the color of their skin and some of their other features.

Of course, we never saw even one of them in its entirely, because they never surfaced completely. They popped up just long enough to get the air they needed to keep going.

And they did keep going. On the our last day at the beach, we didn't see any dolphins. They kept moving on to wherever they were going.

But they've stayed on my mind since then. Lately, when it comes to writing, I kind of relate to them. Being a writer who doesn't make a living writing is kind of like being an ocean mammal. We need to come up for air in order to live. So, we come up for air, surfacing just long enough to take a breath, but never fully surfacing -- because we have to keep going.

That, and my kids taking their first steps, saying their first words, etc.


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And the sky at 41,000 feet above the Atlantic knowing it is -60 degrees C just outside the cockpit window as you sip on a warm cup of coffee and gaze at constellations crystal clear above atmospheric haze realizing that few will ever see them revealed in such clarity.

Nice post. It's harder and harder to feel the wonder of the world as I get older, but I felt it once again while reading this. Thank you.