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The Starling That Dared To Be Different

Friday, January 31, 2014 - 08:23 AM



You've seen them. We've all seen them.

Loic Poidevin//Nature Picture Library/Corbis

Hundreds of starlings are sitting side by side by side — up on a power line yakking, preening — when all of a sudden, boom! Up they go, all of them. What happened? A sudden noise? A falcon in the neighborhood? Whatever it was, all the birds know. All the birds go. Starlings find safety in numbers. They like sameness. Exceptional starlings, I imagine, get eaten.

Well, that's what I used to think. Then, today, I saw  my first unlike-all-the others starling. At least I think I did.

I happened to be watching a video from Rhode Island School of Design professor/artist Dennis Hlynsky. He goes around Rhode Island making films of large groups of birds resting and flying, and, with help from After Effects (and other software), he's able to trace a bird's movements through time.

So, watch what happens here. We begin with lots of starlings sitting on a wire. For whatever reason, they all take off. A burst of birds heads right. A few go left:

After 9 seconds, except for a few fixed lumps (probably power company fixtures), there are no birds on the wire. All are in the sky. There's a pause. Then, all of a sudden, one of those lumps takes off!

 It's not a power fixture. It's a bird that wasn't alarmed when every other bird was. A loner? An iconoclast? Not feeling very well? I don't know. All I know is that the bird was marching to its own drummer. And now I'm wondering ... what about all those other lumps on the wire? There are three of them left. Could they be off-the-charts exceptional starlings? Starlings that don't fear big noises, aren'tbothered by hawk alarms? Sentinels? Bored by all this coming and going? Asleep?

Dennis Hlynsky/Vimeo

Here's the video, with everything in motion. You'll have to go to 2 minutes, 18 seconds in. That's where the Exceptionals self-reveal. And when you watch, you'll see what I saw: After the solo bird flies off, the flock comes slowly back and resettles (this takes about 40 seconds); then, there's another disturbance and everybody takes off a second time, and this time when they go, they all go! The wires are completely bare. So those three lumps weren't lumps. They were birds — birds who (for some reason) didn't give a hoot about what everybody else was doing. OK, now you can go to 2:18 in:

 Dennis Hlynsky on Vimeo.

Speaking poetically, here's possible evidence that there are Joans of Arc, Galileos, or maybe just sleepy Rip Van Winkles in the starling world. It isn't a world of sameness. Hidden in every crowd, even in a murmuration of starlings, there is individual difference! Pardon my obvious human bias here, but just knowing there are lazy or arrogant starlings makes me happy.

Dennis Hlynsky has a website where you can see other animals in time/motion — ducks sweeping through water to hunt carp; a gorgeous one of swallows in the sky; vultures; a cockfight; and a video representation of musical sound waves that Dennis calls "stems."


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Comments [3]

Oliver from Baltimore

Although I like the entertainment factor, I think it is misleading (or wrong) to make the conclusion that they are 'lazy' or 'arrogant' individuals within this flock. Let's assume that a true danger came towards where the flock was perched. If the entire flock escaped except a few lazy individuals then those lazy ones would be much more likely to be eliminated from the population by that danger. This would eliminate the genetic tendency to be lazy from the population since those genes would not be passed on. Thus, lazy birds do not evolve. A much more interesting parallel of a few individuals not following their flock's behavior is seen in kleptoparatism. A bird within a flock gives an alarm call for potential danger. The flock flees. But sometimes the alarm call is malicious. They may give a false alarm call. The flock will then flee, but the alarm caller does not and instead steals food items. Perhaps the starlings are responding in some similar way?

Feb. 05 2014 12:55 PM
Watt deFalk from Portland OR

Why couldn't they possibly be developmentally-disablirds?

Feb. 02 2014 03:08 PM
bradley averick from mayfield, NY

The starling must be working in a group and have some staybehinds who rate the threat level and then give the all clear. these bird if they have migratory behavior may be familiar with each other as individuals and have routines and , well, assignments and responsibilities they assume as being part of a migratory and social group. I love wild birds and enjoy this post.

Feb. 01 2014 10:38 PM

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