Starlings of Gretna
No one knows why they do it. Yet each fall, in exquisite choreographed perfection, thousands of starlings dance in the twilight above Gretna, Scotland. The birds gather in magical shape-shifting flocks called murmurations, having migrated in the millions from Russia and Scandinavia to escape the biting chill of winter.
What is the source of this aerial majesty? No one knows, not even those, like people of science, who study such phenomena. Even complex algorithmic models fail to explain how the starlings’ acrobatics, which rely on the tiny bird’s quicksilver reaction time of under 100 milliseconds, manage to avoid aerial collisions—and predators—as they dance across the sky in perfect harmony. Like traditions repeated year after year, the classic ballet, the Nutcracker at Christmas, for example, this magical performance faithfully returns each season to tell of the coming of winter.
Sadly, their show of force is in danger of becoming nothing more than an illusion, however, as the population of starlings have declined over the years in the UK, perhaps because of a drop in nesting sites. But for now, the birds still roost in several of Britain’s rural pastures, settling down to sleep (and chatter) after the evening’s final bow.
For something akin to a religious experience, you might want to witness this spectacle as it happened.
A murmuration of starlings arriving at Gretna in the Scottish Border, November 1, 2011.