Image: Neels Castillon/Vimeo

Filmmaker Neels Castillon was recently on a commercial shoot in Marseille, France, waiting to film a helicopter's flight into the sunset. But before the metallic bird showed up, tens of thousands of actual birds flew in and upstaged it. They appear to be starlings, a common songbird species known for forming big, nebulous flocks called "murmurations."

"It was amazing," Castillon writes on Vimeo, where the video has racked up 173,000 views in only four days. "We just forgot our job and started this little piece of poetry."

Check out the resulting short film below, titled "A bird ballet":

If you're wondering what inspires starlings to put on such a show, you're not alone. Scientists think it's defensive behavior aimed at hawks, falcons and other predators, since flying in a large flock means better odds someone else will be eaten instead of you. Biologists call this idea "the selfish herd," and starlings boost its effectiveness with synchronized swirls through the sky, producing a shifting blob that's hard to attack.

But there's also more to murmurations than just safety (or selfishness) in numbers. "Indeed, producing spectacular displays over the famous Brighton pier in Southern England every evening is probably not the best way to avoid the attention of predators," researchers recently pointed out in the journal Current Biology. "Instead, it could be that the murmuration itself provides a way of monitoring predators as they approach."

In research from the 1970s, for example, large groups of starlings responded more quickly to a simulated hawk than smaller groups did. Murmurations also resemble real-time social networks, with waves of movement transferring spatial information about anything from an approaching falcon to a prime roosting spot. Studies show this happens on a bird-by-bird basis, with each starling responding to its neighbors' movements, although the outcome can change dramatically based on localized variations in speed and direction.

Aside from satisfying our curiosity about a dazzling natural phenomenon, what's the point in studying murmurations? For one thing, this isn't just about starlings — the mysteries of collective behavior extend to many corners of nature, from baboons and honeybees to amino acids and neurons. Understanding how starlings communicate and interact could have implications not just for biology and ecology, but also math, physics and computer science, since revealing starlings' secrets could help us engineer "intelligent swarms" of robots that fight disease, mine minerals or clean up pollution.

"An evening murmuration is more than just the dance of starlings," the researchers write in Current Biology. "It is a glimpse in to one of the fundamental motions of life."

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MNN tease photo of bird flock at sunset: Shutterstock

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