Common starlings are beautiful birds, jet-black feathers with white tips and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. When flying together, they become something even more mesmerizing — an undulating avian amoeba that seems to have a mind of its own.
It’s called a “murmuration,” and that’s what happened Tuesday evening over the Mall. Jim Havard, a longtime D.C. resident and avid amateur photographer, noticed the birds were particularly active.
“I pulled out my phone and grabbed some video of them soaring over the Mall and in and out of the alleys between the buildings,” Havard told us. “The starlings would come together and then break into smaller groups, meeting up, interacting, joining, separating.”
It looks like the group is moving as a single unit with one mind, and that observation is pretty close to reality.
One study analyzed videos of starling murmurations and found that the “behavioral state” of the bird changes depending on the other birds around it, and vice versa. It’s like a constant feedback between each bird and its neighbors, and it doesn’t matter how big the murmuration becomes.
Starlings evolved into a “social” bird — they constantly hang out in big groups — for safety from predators. When they’re not competing with each other during mating season, the groups can be several thousand strong.
“There’s a big advantage to living in a big group when you’re not breeding,” John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology told The Washington Post last fall. “You are 10,000 or 50,000 pairs of eyes.”
We’ve seen murmurations in the District before, particularly at dusk, but this one was particularly beautiful over the Mall. It’s so interesting to watch them weave and roil back and forth in front of the monuments.
“It was beautiful and somehow both soothing and exhilarating to watch,” Havard said.
If you liked that, check out this stunning show that took place over Israel in January.