November 10, In winter Starlings begin to swarm in huge flocks

Photos: Hilde Speet. Video by Nienke Deutz.
Commissioned and Produced by Public Works, Utrecht.

In winter Starlings begin to swarm in huge flocks. A starling swarm or flock is called a murmuration. These flocks can include millions of birds and when they fly together cause a visual spectacle. This natural phenomenon is often seen in Utrecht. This project was a celebration of this nature event, and also asked ‘What can we learn from this behaviour?’ How do so many birds fly so closely together at speed whilst continually changing direction without colliding?

The principles of the flocking behaviour was studied by Coates i.e collective organisation and non-heirachical decision making. Coates worked with two separate groups to experiment in creating a human starling murmuration the principles of flocking. One was with school children and the other was with a group of 45 employees of the People’s Bank and the City of Utrecht. They practised responding to the movements of their closest neighbours, following and then taking the lead when in front. Then the groups used the flocking behaviour as a strategy to avoid predation, in a similar way that the starlings do. Coates acted as the hunting peregrine falcon and the participants were forced to negotiate their role between focussing on the group and the rules of the formation and their survival as an individual i.e. when to break those rules and take the risk of becoming isolated. To notice when and what the decisions were that determined this behaviour.