Order and harmony in a murmuration


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At first, they trickle in: one bird here, a few birds there. Then, at dusk’s cue, a dark smudge materializes on the horizon. Thousands of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) slowly come into focus, etching flight paths across the winter sky as they stream toward their evening roost in north-central England. Suddenly, the flock dips and twists like a horse tossing its head. It swirls into a funnel, then cartwheels to the side, shapeshifting in seemingly effortless unison. All the while, the birds’ feverish wingbeats and raucous chatter reverberate through the air—and reveal why this intricately coordinated performance earned its name: a murmuration.

Each winter, starlings gather in large flocks of up to 100,000 individuals across the United Kingdom. Most have migrated from northern Europe seeking milder temperatures and more abundant food. Their arrival is celebrated by residents outside the city of Sheffield, England where restored wetlands offer prime roost habitat, and where vast horizons make a perfect theater for evening murmurations. Among the routine spectators is Kathryn Cooper, a physicist-turned-photographer who sees more than just a mesmerizing aerial display. Trained in bioinformatics, Cooper has a keen eye for understanding complex data. “I’m interested in the transient moments when chaos briefly changes to order, and thousands of individual bodies appear to move as one,” she says.

RTFA and enjoy Kathryn Cooper’s photos.