Bird Math: The Secret Lives of Starlings
Have you ever looked at an animal and thought to yourself, “gee, I wonder what they are thinking right now”? I’m pretty sure that all my dog thinks about is warm places to sleep and that most house cats are plotting the demise of their owners. But, I often wonder what goes on in the heads of wild animals. How complex can their thoughts really be? I kind of have to assume that their thought processes are little more than a constant barrage of stimuli and instincts. As it turns out, some animal’s thought processes are way more complicated than that.
For example, the seemingly simple starling is actually a little, winged math wizard. The massive flocks you see of starlings, known as murmurations, consist of thousands of individual birds that can move together like a viscous liquid through the sky. A murmuration in flight amazing to watch, but not only are they visually stunning – they are functional.
Scientists have shown that the larger the murmuration is, the faster it responds to predators and other threats. It’s almost as if a murmuration is an organism in and of itself.
But, how is it that thousands of birds can coordinate, fly, think, and act together without breaking up into a mass of flapping chaos? Scientists say it is math. Each individual starling focuses on a fixed number of birds around it. The magic number for starlings seems to be 6-7.
So, each starling is focusing on the 6-7 birds closest to it for information about what is going on with the rest of the group, and when you multiply that number out, you get the complex interactions of a murmuration.
That seems simple enough, but the math that is involved with murmurations is actually a little more complicated than that. Check out the following video from SciShow that goes into more detail about the mysteries of murmurations, and how math is part of the beauty of these impressive little birds.