Sunday, February 2, 2020

The In Crowd

Murmuration of Dunlin over Boundary Bay
I'm sure everyone has at some point in their life seen a large flock of birds clustered close together, flying in some sort of strange formation that defies logic, and wondered how they managed to do it without crashing into one another. I'm not talking about the orderly V-shaped procession of migrating Canada geese that skillfully allows each bird to change positions as they tire or take the lead. I'm talking about hundreds or even thousands of a particular bird species that suddenly band together and act as a single entity in some strange organized pattern.
Murmuration of Sandpipers in Semiahmoo Bay
Turns out there is a name for this behavior and it's called a murmuration and it can occur when the birds are migrating, being chased by a predator, or simply going about their daily business. One of the daily murmurations  takes place on Still Creek Ave. in Burnaby where 3,000-5,000 crows come home to roost every evening just as the sun sets.
Murmuration of Crows at Still Creek Ave Burnaby
Murmuration of Starlings
It's not just birds that form these swarms or murmurations, they can also be seen with insects and fish. As we all know, bees in particular live in incredibly organized and tightly structured communities that quickly mobilize into swarms when they are moving to a new home. Locusts or grasshoppers are another insect that can form swarms numbering in the billions when suitable climatic conditions exist.
Bee Swarm

Locust swarm in East Africa
Small, ocean going, fish that travel in schools often form what is referred to as a bait ball as a defensive mechanism to protect themselves from predators and is another example of murmuration.

Sardine bait ball

Sardine bait ball
What all these birds, insects and fish have in common is the ability to move in concert as if they had a single mind and do it without bumping into one another. By simply keeping an eye on their closest neighbours, moving in the same direction, and staying close together they are able to move as one giant organism. In the case of birds, scientists have determined that each one keeps an eye on a maximum of seven others and this allows them to maintain perfect synchronization.
Swarm of bats
Vancouver Marathon
Caribou migration
Warm blooded creatures such as bats, ungulates, and humans also form swarms or murmurations though humans are more successful when they are walking or running rather than operating a vehicle. But thanks to studies of birds in particular and mathematical models of fish, new advances in artificial intelligence and robotics may start to make vehicle murmurations safer. There is also evidence of plants and algae using swarming techniques to optimize growth.

But while being part of the crowd can perhaps offer some measure of safety, the herd instinct also discourages independent thinking and as humans this makes us particularly vulnerable. With social media and skillful advertising shaping the way we think and the choices we make, our "group thinking" society is making it all too easy to behave like lemmings. Perhaps before we rush off to join the latest in-crowd we should take a closer look at where it's going.