One of the great paradoxes of nature is that even as everything is breaking down, everything – from humans to fish, inanimate objects to birds – is spontaneously synchronizing.
Both forces are exerting themselves everywhere, right now. It’s this cancelling out, so to speak, that’s keeping all systems relatively stable, in theory at least. But I think most would agree that the collective mind behind everything assembling harmoniously is the sexier phenomenon. It’s what mathematician Steven Strogatz calls the “tendency toward spontaneous order.”
The dance of the starlings – a swarm known as a murmuration – is arguably the greatest show of multiple actors performing as a single entity.
A 2010 study by Giorgio Parisi, a theoretical physicist at the University of Rome, suggests that starling flight dynamics are essentially a single network where each bird’s movements are influenced by the actions of every other bird, “as if they were all connected together.” Using stereometric digital photogrammetry and computer imaging to three-dimensionally remodel both the positions and speeds of individual birds of a flock from consecutive field shots of the flock (snapped at 10 frames per second), Parisi and his team demonstrated how avian swarms seem to be governed by scale-free behavioral correlation, a phenomenon occuring beyond biology. Like avalanches and crystal formation, two critical systems, birds gathered en masse exhibit instantaneous transformations.
Just how a murmurer, say, makes sense of his neighbor’s orientation and velocity – and then (re)acts seemingly without hesitation – is still a mystery to science. But watching it all play out is downright hypnotic.
Below are some of the more stunning bird herds caught on video. Be warned that most are set to pretty horrific music. I’d suggest muting all of them, then a) viewing in silence and in the dark, or b) opening this in a new tab. Either way, it’s Saturday evening. Sit back and meditate on the best avian swarm porn on the internet.
I’ll say, too, that the semantics of avian masses are equally bewitching: A dissimulation of (small) birds, a charm of goldfinches, a train of jackdaws, a deceit of lapwings, a parliament of owls. Many of these collective nouns are hundreds of years old, and were likely passed down from one generation of hunters and birders to the next. I can hear the ornithologists murmuring.
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