A group of scientists in the U.K. say they are getting closer to solving the mystery behind starling murmurations, and say information about sightings in P.E.I. could help them.

A murmuration is when thousands of birds gather together and fly as a group, forming swirling aerial patterns in the sky. 

The University of Gloucestershire and the U.K.-based Royal Society of Biology are compiling a citizen science survey, asking for public reports of sightings from across the globe including Canada and the U.S.

They're charting the length and circumstances around the murmurations.

"Very, very little is known about why starlings murmurate, despite the fact that it is such an incredible spectacle to witness," said ornithologist Anne Goodenough, who is heading up the research.

"It's sometimes referred to as the ballet of the skies. They aren't just flocking together from A to B, they are actually creating shapes in the sky, splitting up, coming back together, it can sometimes look like smoke billowing across the surface of the reed bed or marshland, or whatever they're flying above."  

'Safety in numbers'

Scientists don't know much about the reasons behind the phenomenon, which primarily occurs in the fall and winter. 

One theory is it's an anti-predator strategy.

"Most birds tend to hunt by getting a focus lock on one individual, and if you're moving around in a 3-D mass of starlings, it's much more difficult for a bird of prey to get and maintain focus lock," Goodenough said.

"It could be a way of those birds trying to get safety in numbers." 

Another theory, said Goodenough, is the birds could be trying to attract larger numbers to roost with in order to stay warmer during the winter months.

Populations in decline

Sstarling numbers have been declining rapidly in the UK. Since the mid-1970s the population there has fallen by 66 per cent. 

Overall, numbers are up in Canada and the U.S., but not in P.E.I., where populations are also declining. 

One of the most popular spots to see the starlings on P.E.I. is under the Hillsborough bridge in Charlottetown. Up to 10,000 European starlings have been counted there at dawn and dusk. 

Public encouraged to fill our survey

Researchers are encouraging anyone who has seen starling murmurations to fill out the online survey, which takes about 30 seconds to complete.

It can be found on the Royal Society of Biology website, or on Twitter at  @starling_survey

"The only way that we're going to be able to uncover the secret of murmuration is by getting a lot of data from as many different places as possible," said Goodenough.

The study will wrap up at the end of April.