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As Rome shoos away starlings, scientists study the mathematical precision of their flight.
They have been nominated as one of the “100 worst world invaders” by the Invasive Species Specialist Group, for the threat they pose to biodiversity and agriculture.
The European starling’s fertile advantage is what helped them spread rapidly throughout North America in the last century.
In New York’s Central Park, the first 100 starlings were released in 1890 in an attempt to bring to America all the birds from William Shakespeare’s plays. The English playwright mentions the starling in one passage of “Henry IV.” Since that first release, the dark, pudgy bird has flourished into the millions in the U.S. and is considered a nuisance in the greener cities it flocks to the most.
EU governments have been trying to get rid of the starlings for decades — shooting them, poisoning them and even bombing them — without much success.
In Rome, the city’s only feasible strategy was to trick them. But as the local government takes pride in the idea of outsmarting the starlings, some researchers who live in the eternal city believe that science has a lot to learn from starling flock behavior.
“When starlings are under attack, they actually enhance their coordination and achieve a better global coordination of the flock,” said physicist Andrea Cavagna, who leads a EU-funded project on the starlings.
“This is the opposite of what happens for humans,” he said.
Cavagna’s research group, “Starflag,” is the first of its kind. As statistical physicists they have mapped out the movement of thousands of birds and converted them into mathematical equations.
From these formulas, Cavagna says he envisions a new generation of adroit technology that can produce split-second responses to emergency situations — like starling flocks do with falcon attacks.
The shooing of starlings from the city this fall won’t stop the researchers. Nor will it keep the starlings from returning next year.