Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 18, 2010

The Black Sun Bird

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:07 am

It could be argued that a Starling alone is not really a Starling. These European imports are society creatures and rarely, if ever, can one be found without the company of others – many others. A lone bird, like the creature pictured above over gas station pump no. 3, truly looks lonely and somewhat incomplete. We tend to take Starlings for granted because they are so common, but up close they are rather natty looking this time of year. In fall/winter plumage, like this gas station bird, the mature birds are covered with white “V’s”- the tip of each feather neatly gilded. As the season progresses, this tip wears off and the birds become bronzy blue-black by spring. Starlings, however, can look even better from a distance.

They find safety in numbers and in the fall and spring, their flocks can swell up to tens of thousands of birds which feed together over open ground. When upset by a predator or gathering for a night roosting, they become poetry in motion. Like an aerial school of tropical fish, such flocks perform a mesmerizing dance as the individual birds move about in perfect synchrony.  They clump together and morph into all manner of odd organic shapes that shift instantaneously (like the group pictured below). I liken these vacillating movements to a dark version of the northern lights, but in Denmark they compare them to another astronomical entity.

In their native Danish haunts, huge flocks of starlings are known to gather just before sunset in the spring and fall to perform their ghostly maneuverings. These evening groups are referred to as the “sort sol” or the Black Sun. It’s a rather ominous sounding designation but one that fits because the flocks frequently take on the form of a ball or orb – a black sun in the sky at sunset. The birds perform for about a half hour before settling in for the night when the real sun finally dips below the horizon.

Starlings will also form a black sun whenever danger is detected. They will do this at any old time of the day whenever an approaching bird of prey comes along. The prey bird in question may or may not be interested in nabbing one of the Starlings, but the blackbirds do not take chances. Non-predatory Turkey Vultures are often mobbed. Basically, the idea is to cluster into a tight ball and actually follow the predator through the sky. The predator is less able to take any one bird when they are so massed. I call these anti-predatory maneuvers “hawk balls” (I wonder how that translates into Danish?). This is less euphemistic than black sun, but descriptive none-the-less.

I was privy to a fascinating hawk ball formation last week as I drove to work at sunrise. There over the winterwheat fields of eastern Monroe County a gang of Starlings was in tight formation around an immature bald eagle (see below). I doubt the eagle was actually looking for a meal, but it was simply paying the price for being a big bird.  The Starling cluster not only maintained contact with the eagle as it soared, but actually seemed to engulf it at times. I was able to catch the action on a video sequence that you can see here.

The eagle, looking more like a bird trying to shed itself of pesky mosquitoes, seemed to dash up at the center of the Starling flock a few times, but it never made a talon grab. It eventually veered toward Lake Erie after a few more failed attempts at gentle soaring. This day was not a good one for being a noble national symbol. After sustaining its eastward direction for short while it finally left the hawk ball behind and that is where my video ends. Actually, the Starlings called the thing off – having had their time in the black sun and successfully achieving their mission.


  1. I had to smile when I read this. I just got back from a weekend trip to Michigan. As I was driving back home yesterday, I saw a couple mobile clouds of birds drifting over the Thruway. I presumed they were starlings, since passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets are no longer around to perform such aerial acrobatics. As I watched them turn in unison and swoop around in perfect formation, I thought “this would make a good blog entry – I’ll need to read up on how birds in large flocks communicate.” And lo! and behold – here I find you’ve just written about it, too!

    Great video. As I watched it, all I could think of was the many occasions I’ve tried to outrun mosquitoes and deer flies. I see the same thought crossed your mind, too. 🙂

    Comment by Ellen — October 18, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

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    Comment by Wm Schoeppner — December 15, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

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