SAN RAFAEL, Calif. - Dozens of Bay Area residents are flocking to a small strip mall in San Rafael, anchored by a Michael's and a Macy's, to see a curious scientific phenomenon: Thousands upon thousands of starlings are murmurating in the skies each evening at dusk.
For the uninitiated: A murmuration is to starlings as a gaggle is to geese.
Technically, the term murmuration refers to the bizarre-looking feat when hundreds, sometimes thousands, of starlings fly in swooping, intricately coordinated patterns through the sky. As for what it looks like? A massive swarm of shape-shifting black birds flying in unison among the clouds.
"It looks like a fireworks show with birds," said Vanessa Friedman, who went twice this past weekend to see the unusual event.
In this case, the starlings have been doing their thing every evening like clockwork at 4:30 p.m., over trees in a cemetery that is adjacent to the Northgate shopping plaza off U.S. Highway 101. The birds leave pretty much at 5 p.m., as do the masked crowds, who stand by their cars in awe, and who sometimes get pooped on by the Alfred Hitchcock-esque flight of birds.
Starlings are essentially an invasive species in this country. They were introduced to North America at New York City's Central Park in the 1890s by Shakespeare enthusiasts who wanted all the bird species ever mentioned by Shakespeare to inhabit this continent.
Now, more than 200 million of these birds are thought to live in North America, according to various bird websites.
Bird watchers say flying together keeps starlings warm on winter evenings, it confuses predators and it serves as a tool for the birds to communicate when they have found food or a safe place to roost.
It's not exactly clear just how long the starlings will be around murmurating this season.