Murmuration: Do Starlings Swarm Just So We Can Have A (Beautiful) Word For It?

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Murmuration: Do Starlings Swarm Just So We Can Have A (Beautiful) Word For It?

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In the ever-expanding categories of pub quiz trivia, there’s a special place reserved for whimsical collective nouns for animals that no one ever uses.

There’s the famous ‘parliament of owls’, a ‘leap of leopards’, a ‘shrewdness of apes’, an ‘ostentation of peacocks’, a ‘murder of crows’ – the list goes on. 

Most of the terms were made popular by the Book of St Albans written in 1486 which invented what it called ‘nouns of assembly’ for some 164 items. 

Under the title “The compaynys of beestys and fowlys” the authors got onto such a riff finding ridiculous collective nouns that they began to extend it to humans as well. Thus the medieval tome also gives us “a Doctryne of doctoris”, “a Sentence of Juges”, “a Fightyng of beggers”, “an uncredibilite of Cocoldis”, “a Melody of harpers”, “a Disworship of Scottis”.

The book’s popularity has had the effect of perpetuating many of these terms as part of the Standard English lexicon even if they were originally meant to be humorous.

Nevertheless, some of them have stuck.

A pride of lions or a gaggle of geese have passed into standard usage. As has a murmuration of starlings – perhaps one of the most pleasing collective nouns and, indeed, phenomena in the natural world.

Last month, self-confessed ‘murmuration chasers’ James Crombie and Colin Hogg went viral when thousands of starlings formed the shape of a giant bird over the still waters of Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath, Ireland, by James Crombie.

Via Colin Hogg

James said it took several weeks to find the perfect location to shoot footage of them.

“I’m usually a sports photographer, so for a while, I’ve had a bit of time to think about other things. I could see they were making shapes. I kept going back, to get the image I had in my head,” James told the Irish Times.

“A friend of mine, Colin Hogg, lives near the lake, and he said to me last year that the starlings would make a great picture. They nest in the reeds around the lake, and they move every four or five days, towards sunset, and when they move they make shapes.”

Exactly why starlings murmurate, and how they avoid collision, is not well understood and has been the subject of swarm behaviour studies and mathematical modelling for decades. The first computer simulation of swarm behaviour dates back to the ‘boids’ programme developed in 1986.

According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a murmuration is basically a mass aerial stunt and starlings do it for many reasons.

“Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands,” the RSPB says.

“They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas. 

“They gather over their roosting site, and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night.”

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