Starlings – strength in entanglement

One sight guaranteed guaranteed to lift my soul from the doldrums where it so often resides is that of a flock of starlings doing their stuff in the sky at dusk.

I’ve always been fascinated at the ability of these gregarious avians to fly in such tight and rapidly changing formations. And I gape in wonder at the amazing patterns they cast on the evening sky.

How do they do it?

Common wisdom is that flocks of starlings maintain their cohesion by having each member interact with all his neighbours within a certain distance. Sophisticated computer models have been based on this assumption, and they give rise to some very complex behaviour.

But recent research by members of the STARFLAG project – Starlings in Flight – has shown that the core assumption of the models is false. The results of the latest observations show that each bird in a flock keeps under control a fixed number of neighbours (seven, to be precise), no matter how far apart they may be.

It is almost as if the birds behave as macroscopic analogues of entangled quantum entities, where particles at once close and with identical states retain their relationship even when separated by great distances. This spooky “action at a distance” has been tested and confirmed by physicists, and is one of the stranger aspects of the quantum world.

One of my favourite places for watching starlings is Rye Harbour on the south coast of England. This is a wide open space with a kilometre-long harbour channel leading to the coast, extensive sand and pebble beaches, and a nature reserve which is home to a number of rare birds.

Looking toward the harbour while walking back from the beach at dusk is an experience not to be missed. There is a small stand of trees by a caravan park, and from this tiny bit of greenery can emerge a vast number of starlings. In the ethereal evening light the flocking birds paint amazingly beautiful patterns on a multi-hued sky.

One of these days I’ll get a decent photograph of the spectacle and post it here.