Murmuration: A Flock of Starlings


Scientists have uncovered a simple rule that explains how thousands of starlings flock in formation. STARFLAG – Starlings in Flight – a European project involving biologists, physicists, and economists discovered that the secret is for each bird to track seven others.

Each bird keeps under control, a fixed number of neighbours – seven other starlings – irrespective of their distance, which is the secret of how they stick together. A flock under predator attack may expand dramatically, but birds can regroup very quickly because the cohesion does not depend on the physical distance among starlings, but rather on their ability to interact with a fixed number of neighbours.

The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may be important for fields such as mobile robotics, where highly coordinated swarms of simple units such as robots must solve complex problems such as sweeping an area for surveillance, using simple rules. The team also concludes that the birds are smarter than was thought. “An interaction based upon the number of neighbours, rather than their distance, implies rather complex cognitive capabilities in birds.” (Telegraph UK)