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What’s The Murmuration About The Flock?

Mysteries in nature stimulate one’s curiosity. Most people are more likely to notice a flock of birds, ducks or geese than perhaps a solitary avian. At times one regales when the skies “darken” with massive flocks of migratory birds.

Thinking globally, the largest documented flock of birds witnessed by humans was in Africa, where approximately 1.5 billion red-billed quelea, sometimes called “Africa’s Feathered Locust”, were seen in flight. In 1964, the largest flock of a single species of birds ever seen in North America, was a flock of 40 million red-winged blackbirds in Arkansas. Imagine watching flocks of this size, moving in unison, seemingly with no evident leader, all heading in the same direction.

How and why birds flock was indeed a mystery.

Northern Pintails in Flight

Photo Credit: Elaine Cassidy

In 1985, Craig Reynolds, artificial life and computer graphics expert, created “Boids”, a life simulation program. In applying Boids to flocking birds, three rules were identified that individual birds follow with reference only to its direct neighbors. Prioritized by importance, Boids rule one is that of collision avoidance with nearby flock mates. Rule two is velocity matching, where each bird trieds to match the speed of neighboring birds. Rule three is flock centering, whereby birds try to stay centered between neighboring birds. More recently a fourth rule has become accepted: avoidance, where birds can move out of the way of obstacles or predators.

Pigeon Flock

Photo Credit: Elaine Cassidy

Based on this foundation, scientists have proposed a few reasons as to why birds actually do flock. One idea is that when flying in a flock, predators may see the giant flock as one organism, making it difficult to target one victim from the flock. A second explanation which is quite specific is the idea that birds work cooperatively when hunting, where it may be advantageous in catching prey. A unique experience I was fortunate enough to witness in  French Bay (Cold Lake) in 2014, was a flock of white pelicans in hunting formation. Starting somewhat distant from one another these 10 pelicans formed an ever shrinking circle; suddenly all 10 plunged their enormous bills into the water, ingesting minnows by the dozen.

Rock Pigeons Fill the Air

Photo Credit: Elaine Cassidy

A term used by birders to describe large flocks that fly in a tight formation, often in complex patterns in order to avoid predators, is called a “murmuration”. Massive flocks of European starlings and blackbirds are perhaps the best examples or murmuration’s that we may see in Alberta.

Feral or rock pigeons, shorebirds and robins also move in similar patterns. Murmuration’s occur more often at dusk, when birds are looking for roosts to congregate for the evening. Smaller murmuration’s occur when feeding groups forage. These murmuration’s may number in the hundreds or be significantly larger.

From the flying “V” we see with pelicans, swans and geese to the massive murmuration’s of starlings, blackbirds and pigeons, flying in tight complex formations, birds truly provide us with wonders to watch and add to our life experience enjoying nature.

The Flying V Canada Geese Squadron

Photo Credit: Elaine Cassidy

– Don Cassidy