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Murmuration
 

You can blame Shakespeare – or, more precisely, one of Shakespeare’s admirers – for the fateful decision to bring starlings to North America. Drug manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin was inspired to import every bird species mentioned in one of Shakespeare’s plays, releasing a bunch of starlings in New York’s Central Park in 1890 and 1891. Evidently, Schieffelin knew less about birds than Shakespeare, who mentioned a starling in Henry IV, Part 1 in connection with a proposed scheme by Hotspur to torment Henry. Now firmly established on these shores, starlings have been tormenting man and beast ever since.

Starlings are noisy and drop prodigious amounts of foul-smelling fecal matter on everything in their path. They spread disease to livestock and humans alike. They have displaced a number of native songbird populations and are responsible for at least a billion dollars per year in damage to crops and herds. They are a navigation hazard, particularly around airports, having brought down at least one cargo plane and an airliner. These noxious pests now number in the hundreds of millions and have proven to be impossible to eradicate, despite determined efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In the aggregate, which is the best way to think of them, starlings are like airborne motorcycle gangs, traveling about in huge packs and making a fearsome racket wherever they go. And yet when they take to the air, they are transformed into something wonderful. Individual starlings by the hundreds and thousands coalesce into a dense flying mass called a murmuration. To onlookers on the ground, they appear like time-lapse cloud formations, twisting, turning and folding back upon themselves with joyful abandon. In one of his notebooks, Samuel Taylor Coleridge described a coach ride to London at dawn, during which he saw “starlings in vast flights, borne along like smoke, mist - like a body unindued with voluntary power.”

Their movements are so perfectly synchronized that the starling flocks appear from a distance to be a single organism. Starlings on opposite sides of a massive formation can turn in near-unison, sometimes at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour. How do they do it? An ornithologist in the 1930s suspected starlings might be telepathic. Researchers have since determined that individual birds take their cue from a few birds on either side of them, not from those in front or behind, so as to avoid collisions. Careful observation of their flocking behavior has found that starlings do not align themselves with the direction their neighbors are flying in but from the angle of their turns. Mathematical modeling of these murmurations has uncovered similarities to equations describing “critical transitions,” such as crystal formation or metals becoming magnetized.

A starling flying over a college football stadium on game day might look down and note that humans also are capable of synchronized movements, whether it is fans doing the “wave” in the stands or marching bands performing their routines on the field at halftime. I doubt the bird would be much impressed. The marching bands might be capable of great precision, but their performances on a two-dimensional surface are carefully choreographed and rehearsed, unlike the spontaneous three-dimensional aerobatics of the starlings. And while the fan “waves” might be spontaneous, they are pretty ragged by comparison and unlikely to sustain themselves for very long.

How is it that a creature with a brain weighing less than half an ounce can execute maneuvers of such dazzling complexity that mathematicians and physicists struggle to capture them in their equations? The answer is that the genius of the starling is not found in individuals but is an “emergent behavior” that comes out only when individuals coalesce into something greater than the sum of its parts. Humans rightly celebrate the genius of individuals. But think what we might be capable of achieving if we paid more than lip service to the motto on the Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”).

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