Super starlings: P.E.I.'s 'ballet of the skies' part of world phenomenon

Thousands of European starlings live under the Hillsborough Bridge and put on an aerial show at dusk, starting in the fall. The Island birds are part of a world-wide natural phenomenon known as murmuration.

From Rome to Denmark, starlings are aerial superstars

A flock of starlings fly over an agricultural field near the southern Israeli city of Netivot on Jan. 24. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

They're baaaack! 

Thousands of European starlings live under the Hillsborough Bridge and put on an aerial show at dusk, starting in fall and continuing into the winter. The birds use the bridge as a warm place to roost.

They arrive at dusk in small groups of up to 100 from different areas areas around Charlottetown. The birds continue to circle above the bridge as the numbers build to the thousands.

Each new group adds to an impressive air ballet where the entire flock moves as one. The movement is called a murmuration.

Up to 10,000 starlings have been counted under the bridge during the annual Christmas bird count.  

Thousands of European starlings use the Hillsborough Bridge to roost during winter. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Here are some interesting nuggets to know about starlings around the world:

1. Denmark's 'Black Sun' of starlings

One million starlings form a giant murmuration that actually blocks the sky, hence the name Black Sun.

It's considered the biggest nature event in Denmark every year.

Annual migration in Denmark sees nearly 1 million birds flock to national park 1:02

2. The number 7

Princeton University researchers have revealed a key piece of math behind the murmuration of starlings.

The American scientists, working with a team of Italian physicists, found that seven is the magic number for the birds.

The Italian team recorded videos of starlings with multiple cameras on top of a train station in Rome.

They used isolated shots from the videos to track the position and speed of each bird.

It revealed the starling responds not to the entire flock, but to the seven closest birds.

They co-ordinate with their seven nearest neighbours to save energy, but stay in formation.

Some P.E.I. starlings photographed by Wanda Bailey in 2016. (Submitted by Wanda Bailey)

3. Flying with the starlings

Paragliding world champion Horacio Llorens lived out a lifelong dream on Oct. 17 when he flew among the birds.

He got special permission from the Danish government to be part of the Black Sun phenomenon in southern Denmark.

A Danish ornithologist was on hand to ensure the safety and well-being of the starlings.

Llorens used an electric-powered paraglider to fly with the flock.

Man wanted to experience the annual murmuration of birds from a new perspective 1:05

"The feeling of flying with this flock of birds was different from anything I did in my life," he told the Reuters news service. "I felt I was part of the flock."

4. It's not just starlings! Budgies do it, too

The definition of murmuration is a flock of starlings.

But reporters used the word to describe a series of dramatic photos taken Oct. 6, 2017, in Australia.

Wildlife enthusiast Steven Pearce took the once-in-a-lifetime photographs of more than 10,000 budgerigars at a water hole in Alice Springs, Australia.

The event only lasted 10 minutes before the birds split up again.

Flocks of budgies are usually between three and 100 birds, making this a very rare occurance.

5. Winter visitors to Israel

Murmurations are also well-known in Israel, where starlings from Russia and east Europe spend the winter.

Murmuration phenomena occurs during annual migrations 1:05
A murmuration of migrating starlings is seen in the sky in southern Israel. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Migrating starlings fly in formation across the sky near the southern Israeli town of Rahat Feb. 2, 2015. The phenomenon known murmuration is most common during the winter months. (Nir Elias/Reuters)
An Alitalia plane approaches to land as starlings fly at Fiumicino international airport in Rome Oct. 14, 2013. (Max Rossi/Reuters )

About the Author

Nancy Russell

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water rowing, travelling to Kenya or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca