Monday, November 4, 2013

A Murmuration of Starlings

Birds swarm, as do insects, and they do it at dusk, at end of day, and also in the fall, by some reports gathering in the hundreds of thousands and turning the sky black with their sheer numbers.

            While the "black sky" swarming of birds (second photo on left), particularly in Europe in countries like Denmark and England, is well remarked on, I can't find anyone with anything to say as to why black birds do something similar in more modest, but still unlikely numbers in the residential neighbors of cities, towns and suburbs. They gather in scores and hundreds in trees or overgrown shrubbery thickets and chirp for hours; then swoop in considerable numbers from place to place for no discernible reason.

            A flock of raging black birds poured through our neighborhood one morning last week. They were black. I can't swear they were starlings but that's where suspicion naturally falls since the large-scale swarming behavior -- those turn the sky black phenomena -- is the work of starlings.

            The dominant quality of this experience for me was the noise. I heard them before I saw them. They overwhelmed the whir of the leaf blower from half a block away I had been silently cursing; proved far louder than the gentle murmur of our new "ductless split" a/c-heating system internal component (I'm still working on getting this lingo down).

            What is this I'm hearing? I asked myself. Not an electrical or mechanical noise. Not an engine or a vehicle. Or electronic or amplified sound. That left natural. Since we've never been swarmed by locusts and these white-noises sounded familiar, it had to be birds.

            I ran outside and saw them.

            A flock of raging black birds poured through the neighborhood. Hitchcockesque for a moment. Black wings cleave the air, sluicing the branches of the tree, over the vines and shrubs.

            Their voices like a chorus of immortals, or maenads, telling of matters heavenly, divine, beyond our ken.

            They flew through our maple tree and all the green eruptions that mark the boundary between our yard and our neighbor's, most of these dark angels descending on the flat green grass of the lawn next door, as if some banquet hidden to other eyes, other senses, lay spread on the green surface for them and only them (top photo).

            They persist but a minute or two before pouring over our back fences to the properties beyond us; then a half minute later whipped back through our yards again, barely touching the invisible green banquet that held them fast just a moment before, on their way across their street to the next parched paradise behind a wire fence.

            Their numbers dwindled after that. Or else my ears forgot to hear them, my senses fell into a decline.   

            But convinced that no ordinary, common language words described this phenomenon -- or the the sensory experience of a sudden fury of bird chatter raking the air on your block -- I searched online and found a 'flock' of great words for assemblies of birds.  

            I'll start off with the best and the most appropriate for the neighborhood close-to-home experience of black bird swarm: A murmuration of starlings.

            The phrase was widely attributed to a 15th century English poet named John Lydgate, said to be a follower of Chaucer. As discovered eventually at, here are some of the others:

A bevy of quail

A bouquet of pheasants

A brood of hens

A building of rooks

A cast of hawks

A charm of finches

A colony of penguins

A company of parrots

A congregation of plovers

A cover of coots

A covey of partridges

A deceit of lapwings

A descent of woodpeckers

A dissimulation of birds

A dole of doves

An exaltation of larks...

            According to the Baltimore Bird Club, many of them first found print in Lydgate's Debate between the Horse, Goose, and Sheep in 1440. Lydgate's terms and other others were then published in The Book of Hawking and Hunting (also known as The Book of St. Albans) by Dame Juliana Barnes in1486. But it's not clear whether these authors invented these terms or merely collected terms in use in their time.

            Nevertheless, I will never hear the hysterical white-noise chorus of an autumn reunion of starlings without thinking, oh, "a murmuration."

            It's louder than a murmur, actually. And the emotive quality is right on the edge of incipient panic and really loud cocktail party chatter, everybody gabbing at once, in a great hall with stone floors and very high ceilings.

            Maybe, in their way, autumn is cocktail time for starlings.