Tuesday, November 8, 2011


When I was a child during the late 1950s, on winter evenings, murmurations of starlings would congregate overhead. Fom the distance, it sounded like a bevy of Victorian ladies in taffeta gowns madly rushing up and down a narrow hall, or spinning angels in a tight corner, punctuated by the squeaking of weak floorboards or the mutterings of mice. And the tingling of tiny tinny bells. Add the rushing tide. Myriad summer crickets. A small stream speaking over the rocks.

At dusk, the starlings would pulse and weave in an incredible aerial dance formation before settling down for the night to roost in the trees. It's about pecking order and safety in numbers. Who's on first? Or who's gonna land first. Not me. Not me. Not meeeeeee. And so on. Darkfall usually settled the squabble.

When a curtain of starlings got close you could really hear their wings—like a quail bursting from the bush, but longer and louder, pulsing with each twist and turn. An incredible din. Each bird following the bird directly in front of him—like winter geese in a vee. Only with no one bird in the lead. Weave and pulse like shoals of skybound herring, or pond cells contracting in a petri dish. A dance orgy in flight.
A murmuration of starlings. Wikipedia Commons.

However beautiful they are, passerine starlings, like pigeons and house sparrows, are not native to the Americas. European pests, invasive species of the highest arcana.

One mad March afternoon in 1890, an eccentric Bronx pharmacist, Eugene Schieffelin who was feloniously in love with Shakespeare's works, let loose in Central Park some 60 starlings, then 60 more the following year—of which 16 pairs survived harsh winter.

But Schieffelin, who was not only an eccentric seventh son, but an avid Shakespeare buff, and chairman of the American Acclimatization Society. A deadly combination. He wanted to introduce all 600 of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's works, to the Americas. All of them.

Instead, Schieffelin introduced a bio-hazardous plague of feathered locusts upon the entire North American continent. Not only starlings but also house sparrows. Luckily, most of his lunatic schemes never came to fruition.

Ironically, starlings are only mentioned once in Shakespeare's works. So ultimately, we have Hotspur, or The Bard of Avon—who compared sparrows to angels that could awaken dreamers from their feathery beds—to blame for Eugene Schieffelin's madcap folly.

Hotspur: Nay, I will; that's flat:
He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I'll holla 'Mortimer!'
I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him,
To keep his anger still in motion.” 
                 —Shakespeare, Hotspur: Act i, Scene iii. Henry IV, Part I.

By the time Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the seminal book that launched the environmental movement, was published in 1962, many species of birds had died off in dramatic numbers, and some to the brink of extinction—including condors, pelicans, and bluebirds. It tool a decade before cumulative pesticides such as DDT were banned in the US.

But it seems Shakespeare's starlings weren't dying fast enough for some. The birds got a little extra goulish help from the government and Ralston as the feathered rats were ravaging agricultural crops and gobbling up thousands of dollars of feed (per day) at livestock pens—the pests were fast becoming a nuisance of starlings. Euphonic avicide poisons like Avitrol and Starlicide were developed.

But starlings proved the more resilient. From those original surviving 16 Adam & Evil pairs, 120 years later, they are now some 200 million strong in the United States alone—causing $125 billion in damage every year. That's not including the aeronautical aviation damage. Airplane engines and vast flocks of starling and blackbirds don't mix well. No-fly the friendly skies.

Like ravens and crows, gregarious starlings have a startling ability to mimic human speech—especially names. Sci-Fi-Dada artist Brian Collier is teaching wild starlings to say the name of their liberator, Schieffelin—like Nazi infiltrators trying to say Scheveningen—in the hopes that the learned behavior will spread throughout the Americas. Shades of sinister ornithology!

Starlings warble, chatter and whistle with the best of songbirds. Like parrots and magpies, these omnivorous polyglots (aka poor man's myna-bird) have impressive vocal chops. They can also mimic at least 20 different species of bird songs—including keening hawks, scolding jays and barking crows, as well as impressive renditions of metallic noises, cell phones, car alarms, yappity-yapdogs and wolf-whistles.

A few of these wandering minstrel birds made it to California in 1942, and by the 1950s, they had aggressively displaced the woodpeckers, flickers and bluebirds. Soon, there were vast colonies of starlings darkening the skies—only Hitchcock's The Birds hadn't yet been made. It was a battle of the birds versus farmers and ranchers in epic proportions.

But back to those murmurations of starlings. Enter me, as a child.

I remember one starling dropped out of the sky and landed with an abrupt thump at my feet. Dead, but beautiful vermin. An aurora of turquoise, peacock blue, indigo and purple night painted into its feathers spangled with iridescent and bronzed stars. I stared transfixed at all that dead beauty still warm in my hand.

I didn't want to bury that bird. It was far too beautiful. But I knew that death belonged to the ground, not to the sky, or buried in my treasure box.

Adult starling Sternus vulgaris. Wikipedia commons.
Think I'll posthumously christen that dead starling of my childhood Hotspur for his red feet or maybe I should call him Schieffelin for the gift of gab. Or perhaps Post-Mortimer would have been a more appropriate moniker.

Note Bene: This blog entry started out as a poem that got away. I love the imagery of collective nouns: a siege of herons (or bitterns), a parliament of fowles/rooks, a murder of crows, a bevy/covey of quail, an exaltation of larks, a charm of goldfinches, a murmuration of starlings—spontaneous metaphor based upon close observation. A sibilant rustle of wings.

I've used collective nouns in poetry lessons (see my Athena of Owls post) but I've found that they have all but disappeared from English. Within my generation, they havev become an archaic footnote. We've lost usage of our descriptive collective nouns because we've decimated so many of the vast flocks (and herds) our grandparents would have routinely witnessed. FOrget the demise of the passenger pigeon. When's the last time you saw a bank of plover?

This short video making the internet rounds is from Shannon, Ireland. Wish Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith of Islands and Rivers hadn't added the background music—so you could actually hear the murmuration. Murmuration was an entry for the WWF short film competition: Life.Nature.You. Make The Connection. Murmuration

Thanks to Murmuration, collective nouns are getting a good dust-off—as most people haven't a clue as to what it means.
Murmuration Mur`mur`a´tion
n. 1. The act of murmuring; a murmur.
Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, published 1913 by C. & G. Merriam Co.
2. Murmuration of starlings: a flock—Lydgate, 1470.

There are lots of starling encounters posted on the internet—and every one is ruined by "mood" music. As if the music of their wings wasn't enough.

Another more informative video—you can hear them until the Oxford vidoeoggrapher cranks up the silly mood music.

Starlings on Otmoor

There's more starling madness in The Huffington Post.

starling murmuration Gretna 2013  This new clip is pretty spectacular, with 10,000 starlings on the move.

Starling Murmurations Transform Into Stunning Shapes it also made Huff Post

For what it's worth, I wrote of the loss of collective nouns before I found this article—well worth sharing. Michael McCarthy: From a siege of herons to a murmuration of starlings... why collective nouns are in peril

Tanzanian starling. Wikipedia
My next post I wrestled the poem Schieffelin's Starlings back out of the prose but it's still too long. Check it out. 

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