From my vantage point at work I had a majestic head-on view of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Towards sunset in winters I could always count on hundreds of starlings congregating onto one single tree nearby.
It would start with just a few alighting. Then several more would join the group. Eventually there would be hundreds of squeeling, exuberant birds blackening the tree and making a huge racket of whistles, clucks, and songs.
I wondered what they were doing, and why they always picked that particular tree. I found out that in the winter starlings nest together for warmth and to avoid predators picking them off one by one as they return home at night. Once they are all present and accounted for, they fly off to their nest together. Safety in numbers, it would seem.
But this ritual is also a sort of happy hour, where they share stories of their day’s adventures. And they observe one another’s degree of confidence or dejection as they fly to the tree, much as we would as we see people arriving at a bar. Swagger is a sign that a bird found a good food source. The next morning, observant starlings will follow that successful bird!
The miraculous flocking behavior captured on the video above is another order of magnitude altogether–whatever can be the explanation for these bird fireworks?