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The Starling That Dared To Be Different

Correction:

A previous version of this story incorrectly included a photo of Common Mynas.

You've seen them. We've all seen them.

Hundreds of starlings are sitting side by side by side — up on a power line yakking, preening — when all of a sudden, boom! Up they go, all of them. What happened? A sudden noise? A falcon in the neighborhood? Whatever it was, all the birds know. All the birds go. Starlings find safety in numbers. They like sameness. Exceptional starlings, I imagine, get eaten.

Well, that's what I used to think. Then, today, I saw my first unlike-all-the others starling. At least I think I did.

I happened to be watching a video from Rhode Island School of Design professor/artist Dennis Hlynsky. He goes around Rhode Island making films of large groups of birds resting and flying, and, with help from After Effects (and other software), he's able to trace a bird's movements through time.

So, watch what happens here. We begin with lots of starlings sitting on a wire. For whatever reason, they all take off. A burst of birds heads right. A few go left:


After 9 seconds, except for a few fixed lumps (probably power company fixtures), there are no birds on the wire. All are in the sky. There's a pause. Then, all of a sudden, one of those lumps takes off!

It's not a power fixture. It's a bird that wasn't alarmed when every other bird was. A loner? An iconoclast? Not feeling very well? I don't know. All I know is that the bird was marching to its own drummer. And now I'm wondering ... what about all those other lumps on the wire? There are three of them left. Could they be off-the-charts exceptional starlings? Starlings that don't fear big noises, aren't bothered by hawk alarms? Sentinels? Bored by all this coming and going? Asleep?

Here's the video, with everything in motion. You'll have to go to 2 minutes, 18 seconds in. That's where the Exceptionals self-reveal. And when you watch, you'll see what I saw: After the solo bird flies off, the flock comes slowly back and resettles (this takes about 40 seconds); then, there's another disturbance and everybody takes off a second time, and this time when they go, they all go! The wires are completely bare. So those three lumps weren't lumps. They were birds — birds who (for some reason) didn't give a hoot about what everybody else was doing. OK, now you can go to 2:18 in:

Speaking poetically, here's possible evidence that there are Joans of Arc, Galileos, or maybe just sleepy Rip Van Winkles in the starling world. It isn't a world of sameness. Hidden in every crowd, even in a murmuration of starlings, there is individual difference! Pardon my obvious human bias here, but just knowing there are lazy or arrogant starlings makes me happy.


Dennis Hlynsky has a website where you can see other animals in time/motion — ducks sweeping through water to hunt carp; a gorgeous one of swallows in the sky; vultures; a cockfight; and a video representation of musical sound waves that Dennis calls "stems."

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