The video at the bottom of this post has well over 25 million visits.
It shows a close up view of a murmuration, an immense flock of starlings rippling through the sky in a series of complex swoops and turns.
Murmurations usually occur just before dusk sets in, and the shadowy movements of the starlings look striking against the dark sky. While the sight of a murmuration is impressive, the word itself comes from the sounds made by the birds.
The Old Latin root for murmuration means: ‘humming, muttering, roaring, rustling’–and in Old Greek: “to roar, to boil”. (How great is the word–‘boil’? It really captures that rolling sense of movement.)
Watching the video, where the sounds are mostly blocked out by overlaid music, you get a sense of what it must be like to be close to the bustling and swooping movements of the birds, how thick the air is with their sound.
An elegant response
The movement of the starlings is an elegant group response to either a danger, say a peregrine falcon, or an opportunity, like a food source.
The patterns of flight emerge from each bird’s reaction to its neighbors.
If one bird sees a predator and shifts away, or another sees a food source and shifts towards it, that movement influences the whole flock.
While a murmuration is hauntingly beautiful there’s a sense of brute physicality to it as well.
One lone bird confronted by a falcon would also shift away, but when that movement is mirrored by thousands of other starlings it must be daunting to the predator, as this great shadowy beast rears up and away in the sky.
What are we responding to?
We’ve all seen variations on this movement before in schools of baitfish, blood cells under a microscope, the swirl of galaxies.
Something about those repeated patterns of motion strike a chord with us, and we find them mesmerizing. Maybe we see our own communal movements echoed in the flocking of starlings.
People are social animals, our range of responses may have more complexity but the similarities are there.
This is echoed in the complex movements of traffic through a city at peak hour, guests at a wedding shifting this way and that, an audience at a concert responding to the performers and the people around them, maybe the best human example is the way we interact on the internet.
The Murmuration In You
As well as the interactions we have outside of ourselves, there is also a rich unfolding taking place within us as sensations, emotions, and thoughts weave together, mingling, influencing each other as they meet.
These inner swirlings can be hard to perceive, occurring at the edge of our own dusky subconscious. And we have to settle in and really pay attention to recognize them. I think one reason murmurations are so compelling is that they mirror the unfolding movements of our inner life. We see a deep and hidden aspect of ourselves mirrored against the sky.
The Murmuration Exercise
When I run medium sized workshops I have a favorite exercise I often include that brings the participants together and, with a few simple rules, mimics a murmuration.
It’s great fun and people are always fascinated by the experience of being inside a living system as it twists and turns through the room in seemingly random movements.
And when we do the murmuration exercise in a workshop and allow our own bodies to be moved in these patterns, we get to experience a small taste of something essential to the universe as it’s projected in us. We are making contact with the seeds of murmuration stirring in our own bodies. It never fails to generate intense discussions afterwards.
6 or 7 starlings
Each starling in a murmuration moves in response to 6 or 7 neighboring birds. These partners remain the same even though other birds may, at times, come closer to the individual bird. This ‘system’ is partly what allows the murmuration to create such elaborate movements and patterns.
Each bird instinctively attunes to to the birds around it, and through this becomes part of a larger ‘being’, a trade-off that gives the birds more safety and opportunity.
While people aren’t starlings, a murmuration is an interesting metaphor for looking at how we interact with the people around us. We certainly shape each others lives in some way as we interact with the people around us.
Thinking about the 6 or 7 people around me in any life situation–family, jobs I’ve worked in, friendship circles–is something I’ve been thinking about while writing this post. I can see how being part of any group influences my behavior as I try to balance my own needs to the needs of the group.
There are times when I’ve partially, or fully, switched out some of these half dozen relationships–through taking a new job, or moving, or entering new relationships–and each time I can clearly see the shifts that have occurred as a result.
So, here is the video. I’d love to see your comments on it: How does watching this video affect you? What did you feel in your body as you watched? Can you feel the movements mirrored in your own body?
“We see a deep and hidden aspect of ourselves mirrored against the sky” What a beautiful line that is Dave! And such truth. I love the video and I love watching these murmurations. There is an awesome one that happens in Portland every September. It is so amazing that not only do the birds tune into the 6 or 7 fellow birds, but they also know just when to come together in particular spots.
Your metaphor reminds me of that saying “You are the sum total of the 5-6 people you spend the most time with.” Although I don’t completely agree with this, I definitely believe that we are profoundly influenced by the people we choose to spend most of our moments with. Remembering this helps so much in those many decisions that come up every day. Thanks so much for this beautiful post!
That murmuration in Portland sounds wonderful. I’ve only ever seen them on video, I’d love to get the chance to be right there in the thick of it! I agree with your rewording of that saying, about being profoundly influenced by the 5-6 people around us. It’s a great thing to keep in mind, even if just to check in with questions like– Who are the people I’m around? How do they influence me? Thanks for your thoughts , Sarah!
Love this post, Dave! Such a powerful place of contemplation and exploration–our murmurations internally…and amidst others…and the connection and murmuration between them…and between them and the larger universe.
In Chinese Medicine, we talk about something usually translated as “resonance.” The contexts are many, but include, for instance, the resonance between patient and practitioner, between certain herbs/foods and systems of the body, between the microcosm that is us…and the macrocosm that at once creates and contains it. Nothing is separate–except perhaps the whole that is everything. And everything, in its movements and reverberations, affects everything else.
I love what you say about resonance. And this, “Nothing is separate–except perhaps the whole that is everything. And everything, in its movements and reverberations, affects everything else.” so beautifully put, and I really believe that. Even trying to keep that idea in mind as we move through our days can make such a huge difference. Thanks so much, Dave
The movement in the murmuration makes me think of the fluidity of a ballet or the swells of an orchestra. I watched it without the sound, and it seems to have such a musicality to it even in silence. It’s an incredible perfomance. I wonder if the birds feel frantic and reactive while doing it, or if it is a joyous celebration, a true dance for them?
The ballet, the orchestra–I can totally see that. What beautiful images. I’m going to have to watch it without the sound now!
Mesmerizing. Great post. Tweeting it.
Thank you, Anvita!
Dave, all I can say is wow! What a beautiful and moving video you shared. At first, I actually felt a little frightened – the sheer number of birds made me feel a little vulnerable as if something bad was about to happen. But as the video kept playing and the music started, I actually felt a great deal of joy! I couldn’t help but smile at how amazing this planet we call home is 🙂