Murmuring Starlings. Chaos Theory.

There is a certain laziness about viewing an epic landscape or work of art that has stood for centuries, millennia or longer.  It existed before you were born and will do so after you are dead.  You probably plan your visit in detail.  There is zero sense of urgency.  Often when you finally get to it you are surrounded by a multitude of (other) tourists who by their very presence, make yours matter a little less.

Have you ever seen a murmuration of starlings?  When a flock of hundreds or thousands move together as if they are one single super organism?  Tellingly not in a rigid or linear fashion, but in a pulsating, hypnotic, fundamentally unpredictable swarm.  It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  Utterly spellbinding, it is a cross between a tornado and an orchestra, but could at any second melt away.  The transience and the sheer chance of the moment, grips you in an explicable way.

If you haven’t seen it, or even if you have, watch this video, and turn up the music if you can.

Why do starlings do this?  It is an incredibly effective behaviour for evading predators.  A sparrowhawk or a falcon can easily pick off a lone bird, but when they flock together, incredible as it sounds, they are able to use each other as cover.  Firstly flying into a flock of thousands of birds is quite disorientating, visually and audibly.  Secondly it is difficult to keep track of the particular bird you are chasing, and the bird of prey can end up chasing 10 different targets, each of which using a burst of energy before they vanish into the flock, whilst the hunter becomes only more tired.  Finally the group is able to use the eyes and ears of each member as it detects danger, every bird reading the behaviour from its comrades and adjusting their flight accordingly.

If you wonder how effective this might be, then this short video is a perfect example.

This technique is used throughout nature by shoals of fish, herds of zebra and many more.

Early researchers believed there was a lead bird, followed by others.  A new mathematical analysis of flight dynamics in flocks of starlings suggest they are effectively a single network, with every bird’s movements affected by every other bird’s movements, as if they were all connected together.  To all intents and purposes, a single entity governed by a collective mind.

It is a perfect example of chaos theory.  Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics that deals with complex systems with multiple ‘parts’ whose behaviour is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions, so that small alterations can give rise to strikingly great consequences.  It is responsible for coining the famous, and misunderstood ‘Butterfly Effect’.

The starlings follow a few simple rules: each bird heads in the direction of their neighbours and toward the group’s general position. They don’t stray more than a wings length from their neighbours and will adjust their course drastically when facing an obstacle, predator or even a gust of wind.  Even a tiny movement from a single bird can have a rapid effect that ripples through the entire group.  This is what causes the distinctive, pulsating swarm.  Methodologically this is fundamentally opposite to the ‘ordered’ world of a colony of ants or bees.

The same model is commonly visible throughout the world.  The way weather works, how snowflakes are formed, even the stock market.  What is interesting is that with all the variables considered, and their interconnectedness, predicting an exact outcome is impossible, even if all the supercomputers in the world were hooked up together.  A humbling thought that the technological mountain built by humans can’t work out which way birds will fly.

I wonder what parallel this might have for the way we govern ourselves, the way we view leadership and how humans can mutually exist and make decisions.  Societies and demographies cyclically define themselves by excluding others, based on which sports team they support, the colour of their skin, their views on God and and an endless list of other differentiators.  Perhaps there is something to be learned from starlings.

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