Reub's journey

27 February 2010

Murmuration of starlings

Last Saturday was an interval of clear weather and deep blue skies; the sky was scoured clean from rains that had been falling for days, and John and I were on our way to check out Brownsville, Oregon, a tiny historic town. Sometimes I know when I will see something interesting (Brownsville) and other times the interesting things just happen suddenly, like this.

From the car window we saw sheep, muddy from the dark wet fields that they were grazing; the interesting thing was that they were joined by thousands of singing starlings, birds that were happy to be grounded, happy to be feeding on insects and seeds, happy to be in the sun.

There were so many, and they sounded so joyful. They moved with the sheep, who were cautious of our stopped car.

In the UK starling populations have declined, despite the tenacious and adaptable quality of the species. But here they are "America's Most Hated Bird." You probably know they were introduced in 1890 by a group that wanted the New World to contain all of the birds ever mentioned by Shakespeare, and had it not been for Scene 3 of Henry IV we might not be seeing these birds on the west coast of the US. They have been responsible for plane crashes, and in 2008, the US government trapped, poisoned and shot over 1.7 million starlings, nuisance birds. The state of Washington, where starlings have damaged many crops, has killed more starlings than any other: 650,000 in one year. Poison is sprinkled on dog food or french fries, a favorite starling snack. Still, the populations are huge. (Source: Post-Standard, Syracuse, NY)

Last Saturday they were so amazing.

Those flocks. How do they manage to stay together in the air? Researchers studying the movement of starlings have concluded that they follow the healthiest individuals of their population. Watching the individual in front of them, they make few mistakes. They flock by the thousands, at high speeds, gracefully and flawlessly. The word for such a flock of starlings is "murmuration," a reference to the sound that they make when so many of them fly in formation. I think it is my new favorite word.

This is a short video of starlings flocking over Rome, apparently Europe's favorite meeting place for them.


  1. We had a flock of starlings last week, followed by a flock of robins and now a flock of larger blackbirds. Seems that the birds are telling us the seasons are moving.

  2. That is very interesting. It seems remarkable that birds would be a cause of plane crashes. Amazing.

    I love how green it is where you are.

    Oh, and I like your new header, which you've probably had for awhile and I've just now noticed. I really like it.

  3. Thanks JarieLyn. The header is a detail from a painting done by one of my 7th grade students, and I thought it went well with the idea of rainbows last Friday.

  4. Murmuration - I love that! We had large flocks of starlings in our neighborhood in Richmond, and as we would walk around we'd watch them flow from one large tree to another. I remember D commenting that it was the closest we could feel to being underwater (w/o actually being underwater), and it's true, they look like schools of fish, pouring through the air.

  5. Such amazing photographs! Flocks sometimes land in our garden and it's really a bit spooky to hear them all chattering away like extras in a Hitchcock movie. Then, all of a sudden, they will lift up as one...a great beating of wings in the air. Then quiet.

    And I would hate the job of washing those sheep!!

  6. Wow! That film is truly amazing, as are your images. Did you see the film about migrating birds (it's a few years old). Incredible how flocks, murmurations, schools (in the case of fish) know how to feel each other, figure out how/where/when to turn.

    Makes me think of choirs or orchestras, though we humans always have a conductor. Truly cool!

  7. Man, those sheep were filthy dirty, Pamela! But they didn't seem to mind, and they matched their starling friends.

    Reya, I saw and loved Migrations awhile back. Some of the migrating birds over eastern Europe broke my heart when I saw them in that film.

  8. Tabor, the seasons are definitely moving. Maybe even in those states that have seen so much snow in February.


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