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A Massive Starling Murmuration Becomes "A Real Highlight of Existence" - Explore

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Sierra Daily

11/16/2011

A Massive Starling Murmuration Becomes "A Real Highlight of Existence"

Starling murmurationThe two women were just wrapping up a day of canoeing the River Shannon when it happened: A massive swarm of birds swooped in and danced majestically above them, performing an aerial spectacle so close to the paddlers' heads that they instinctively ducked.

"It was definitely a bit scary, a bit terrifying. The fact that it was so beautiful overrode all of that," said Liberty Smith, one of the two women who caught the astonishing event on video. "It was a real highlight of existence. We were in awe."

The 28-year-old filmmakers, Smith and Sophie Windsor Clive, are from London but were in Ireland last January when they decided to row to a small island. They were nearing the end of a 2.5-hour trip when the starlings appeared in a mesmerizing cloud of intricate dancing and weaving. The birds, silent except for their wings, came so close that the two felt a bit afraid — and then astonished. "We actually didn’t know it was going to be something so remarkable until we were in the middle of it," Smith said. 

The video went viral a few weeks ago, after Smith and Clive entered it in the World Wildlife Fund's Vimeo contest

It's lucky these birds were even filmed at all: The pair had brought two cameras out of habit, but the "good" one's batteries had run out. They caught four minutes on their non-HD device before it started to get dark, though the birds were still soaring when the taping ended. 

Paul Cabe, a biology professor at Washington and Lee University, wrote his thesis about starlings. According to him, what Smith and Clive captured is exceptionally rare: "I've seen similar things," he said, "but never as dramatic or with as large a number."

The word "murmuration" refers to a large group of starlings, but does not actually describe their incredible swirling waves in the sky. This phenomonon occurs almost daily in smaller starling flocks, Cabe said. Experts believe the behavior to have developed as a way to escape aerial predation: One study showed that the starlings' acrobatics greatly reduced Peregrine falcons' hunting success.

Incidentally, North America's starlings are the same species Clive and Smith spotted in Ireland. This is thanks to Shakespeare. In 1890, the European starling was introduced to the U.S. in a quixotic attempt to bring over all the birds Shakespeare mentioned in his works, Cabe said.

Inspired by their once-in-a-lifetime experience, Clive and Smith hope to try for it again next year. 

--Avni Nijhawan / image: Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith

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