From the ground, a flock of “murmurating” starlings look absolutely hypnotic. Now imagine how this falcon must feel as it tries to snatch a quick meal from the dazzling throng.
Starlings like to gather in West Cork, Ireland, but this year’s conglomeration is so big and so spectacular that it’s drawing crowds. Starlings band together in flocks called “murmurations,” which look like giant, ever-changing floating blobs from the ground. This particular gathering began in early November, and it’s grown to include some 10,000 members.
This groupthink behavior is designed to confuse birds-of-prey. Though it looks highly coordinated, each starling decides where to fly by looking at about a half-dozen birds in its immediate vicinity. It’s this strange imitation game that gives the flock its unified appearance.
A member of Birdwatch Ireland’s West Cork branch recently captured video of a large murmuration as it came under attack by a peregrine falcon. The birds dip, dive, and swoop, creating a stunning visual display for onlookers. But for the falcon, it’s mass confusion. The bird-of-prey dives into the thrall in hopes of narrowing in on just just one, but the collective behavior of the birds throws it off.
“[As] soon as they go into a tight group, it confuses the bird-of-prey which has to have one thing to lock on to and catch, but if it’s a moving group, they can’t lock on to anything—there’s no leader in the murmuration, it’s just a mass thinking and movement,” Peter Wolstenholme, a member of Birdwatch Ireland’s West Cork branch, told The Irish Times.
But it’s a different story when the starlings are on their own. “[A] sparrow hawk can fly along in the field and just pick them up in its talons,” he said. Since November, Wolstenholme says he’s seen peregrine falcons and Merlin falcons make attempts at the murmuration, but the only bird-of-prey to make a successful snatch was a sparrow hawk—which it did by ambushing a lone starling that was roosting in the woods.