Monday, October 29, 2012

Sky Riding

Each fall, starlings come together in vast, fast-moving clouds of wings and warbling—huge flocks called “murmurations” that billow and wheel through the sky. Each fall, hundreds or thousands of birds rise and turn and bank in a non-quite unison that’s more magical than perfect synchronicity could be, as it makes the shapes of their flocks expand and contract like fireworks or plumes of smoke.

Much of what’s marvelous about these murmurations is watching them in action, but I still (of course) took pictures.

The flocks I saw on my way home from work were smaller—more like murmurs than murmurations, so the effect is somewhat lessened—but the sight of them rising from a tree-top as if the oak's crown had suddenly flown off was magnificent.

The mechanics of starlings’ flight flocks is not entirely understood, although some fascinating studies have been done on the topic by European researchers on starlings in Rome (home of enormous murmurations). Among the discoveries were that individual starlings only pay attention and respond to the movements of six or seven of their nearest neighbors, causing changing in flight direction to ”ripple…through flocks.”

The reasons for this flocking behavior—in other species as well as starlings—are not entirely known, although predator avoidance does appear to play a part. Although it’s ever-so-unscientific, I can’t help but think that pure exuberance must also play a part, since speeding through the skies among a rustling, whistling contingent of your fellows must be a lot of fun.

Certainly it’s attracted the attention of poets, including Richard Wilbur (“An Event”) and Anca Vlasopolos (“Starlings”)—and no doubt others as well (if you know of any other passages or poems on starlings, please let me know).

For me they’re one of the best manifestations of fall: eerie and fantastical and exhilarating and ephemeral—a mystery and delight to scientists and non-scientists alike.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anca said...

I'm convinced that starlings used to migrate before they evolved their extraordinary adaptive capacities. What they do each fall is mimic long-gone migration drills, and it's both so gorgeous and so sad that this is all we have of what our ancestors witnessed, even a century ago--skies darkening with flocks on their way south or north, inevitably marking seasons' passing and progress.

Lucy Corrander Now in Halifax! said...

It's a wonderful sight. Where I live now, we don't see it - even though starlings gather on telephone wires. I too can imagine it being a wonderful sensation, wheeling in speed and harmony in a mass.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Hope you two are okay. Horrible.

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