Flocking starlings evade predators with ‘confusion effect’

A video game is helping researchers learn more about how tiny European starlings keep predators at bay. Their massive flocks, consisting of hundreds to thousands of birds, fly together in a mesmerizing, pulsating pattern called a murmuration. For a long time, researchers have suspected that the bigger the flock, the harder it is for predators like falcons and hawks to take down any one member, something known as “confusion effect.” Now, researchers have analyzed that effect—in human hunters. Using the first 3D computer program to simulate a murmuration, scientists tested how well 25 players, acting as flying predators, could target and pursue virtual starlings, whose movements were simulated based on data from real starling flocks (see video above). The team’s findings reaffirmed the confusion effect: The larger the simulated flocks, the harder it was for the “predators” to single out and catch individual prey, the researchers report this week in Royal Society Open Science. So maybe sometimes, it’s not so bad to get lost in a crowd.