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Com­puter-style game aims to ex­plain why Star­lings mur­mu­rate

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

New re­search aims to an­swer the ques­tion of why Star­lings mur­mu­rate

SCI­EN­TISTS FROM THE Uni­ver­si­ties of Bris­tol and Gronin­gen, in the Nether­lands, have cre­ated a com­puter game style ex­per­i­ment which of­fers new and more cer­tain an­swers to one of bird­watch­ing’s most-asked ques­tions – why ex­actly do Star­lings form mur­mu­ra­tions? Each of th­ese gath­er­ings can hold thou­sands of birds, and sci­en­tists have now ob­served that flocks of Star­lings are larger, and more densely packed, in ar­eas with more preda­tors, such as rap­tors, and that at­tacks by such preda­tors are less likely to suc­ceed against larger groups of Star­lings. In larger groups, more birds can be on the look-out for preda­tors at any one time, and there is ev­i­dence that larger groups also al­low faster trans­fer of in­for­ma­tion – if one bird sees a preda­tor it might turn to es­cape, caus­ing other birds to turn, even if they’ve not seen the dan­ger di­rectly them­selves. An­other sug­ges­tion is that preda­tors may be con­fused by the sheer num­ber of po­ten­tial prey, some­thing which is called the ‘con­fu­sion ef­fect’. Bene­dict Ho­gan, a PHD stu­dent based at the School of Bi­o­log­i­cal Sci­ences in Bris­tol, ex­plained: “Test­ing th­ese the­o­ries is dif­fi­cult in the wild, so we traded hawks for hu­man par­tic­i­pants, and made a com­puter game style ex­per­i­ment, where the par­tic­i­pant at­tempts to fly in and catch one tar­get Star­ling in a flock of up to 5,000 sim­u­lated Star­lings. “We aimed to find out whether or not con­fu­sion does oc­cur in th­ese mas­sive and com­plex ag­gre­ga­tions. We found that, in line with the pre­dic­tions of the con­fu­sion ef­fect, par­tic­i­pants had more dif­fi­culty in cap­tur­ing a tar­get Star­ling in larger flocks, and in denser flocks; and that th­ese ef­fects in­ter­acted. “How­ever, it is likely that preda­tor con­fu­sion is only one of many func­tions of th­ese im­pres­sive groups in Star­lings.” ÊNATURAL WON­DER Star­ling mur­mu­ra­tions are a de­light to wit­ness – but it’s not known why they do it

In larger groups, more birds can be on the look-out for preda­tors at any one time

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