For a brief moment in Israel, an enormous black shape resembling a giant twisted teaspoon darkened the sky.
It appeared magical, but it was actually something arguably much cooler: tens of thousands of birds, swooping and diving through the sky in unison. These birds were starlings, which are stocky black birds that spend a lot of their time in flocks. A flock is a group of birds that live and travel together.
Starlings don’t just fly in a boring, straight line: they twist and turn together to form dramatic, swirling, ever-changing patterns that can resemble anything from leaves to globes to spoons. These amazing flock displays are called murmurations.
Dancing Through The Sky
Albert Keshet is a wildlife photographer based in Israel. He saw the stunning scene after spending more than five hours recording starlings in the northern Jordan Valley during the last week of 2021. At one point, he saw an entire flock of several thousand starlings take flight, dance through the sky, and form an unmistakable spoon shape.
“They held it for a few seconds, then the shape changed to a bent spoon,” Keshet said. A few seconds later, the flock’s shape had changed again, then again, and then again.
The starlings are birds from Europe that migrate to Israel’s warm and dry cliffs every winter. Migration is the movement of animals from one place to another, often at specific times of the year. The birds leave for Israel when it becomes too cold for them in their European homes.
A single flock can contain more than a million starlings. Scientists say that the birds find safety in numbers and that their swirling, whirling movements in flight confuse animals like hawks that would like to eat them.
How Do They Do That?
But how can a flock so big remain together during the birds’ swirling acrobatic routines? Scientists published research in a scientific journal in 2013.
The scientists say that each bird gets its bearings by monitoring the behavior of just six or seven other birds flying nearby. When one bird changes direction, six or seven of its closest neighbors change direction, too. By simply focusing on their close neighbors, a flock of 100,000 birds can suddenly swarm into a spoon shape, then break apart and regroup in an entirely different pattern moments later.
Though starlings are common birds in Europe, as well as in the United States where they were introduced, most people are mesmerized when they see a murmuration. Those changing, pulsing shapes are one of nature’s most stunning displays.