Two weeks ago, I was driving alongside a large field on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and saw a spectacular display of coordinated bird flight. A flock of hundreds or even thousands of red-winged blackbirds were flying in a tight formation while turning and flowing—also called a murmuration.
The flock would shoot up with an explosion high into the air and then in a twisting undulation drop low to the ground. A red-tailed hawk was directing the movements as it followed the flock. As I was trying to get a camera out to film the flock, the blackbirds suddenly landed and the hawk flew away.
A murmuration is a flock’s tight flight pattern in a common direction while avoiding collisions with each other. The flock follows a leader in one direction but as that leader turns, a new one takes over.
Predators, food location, roosting sites and plain nervousness can incite the action. The amazing thing about murmurations is that the birds in the middle don’t know where or why they are moving and yet have to fly fast and avoid running into other birds.
There are three types of birds in Maryland that cause these complex flights: red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and European starlings. All three form large flocks in the fall and winter and can fly several miles each day from roosting to feeding areas.
Of the three, starlings tend to be most spectacular in their group flights. The European starling is not native to the Americas but was once mentioned by William Shakespeare, sparking the release of 60 birds into New York’s Central Park. Now they are everywhere.
Starlings are medium-sized birds with white tipped feathers and a yellow bill. Their murmurations have been filmed for movies and TV. One of the best examples was published as a short film by National Geographic, “Flight of the Starlings” (Nov. 15, 2016; youtube.com/watch?v=V4f_1_r80RY).
The best areas to see these dramatic flights is near large open grain farmlands. I frequently see them while driving the back roads of the Eastern Shore.