Glorious Murmurations

An extinct species of Starling, drawn in 1880 by John Gerrard Keulemans.

An extinct species of Starling, drawn in 1880 by John Gerrard Keulemans.

Ramblings 5.  We are blessed to live in a rural area, where a countryside walk is never far away.  With winter upon us it is tempting to shut ourselves away from the cold, assuming that nature has no wonders for us to see at this time of year.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  A winter walk can be very enjoyable and interesting.  Wildlife is easier to spot now that the leaves have fallen, and animal tracks are visible in the mud or snow.  Some of the most remarkable sights during the winter are those huge flocks of starlings that make swirling patterns in the sky as they gather together to roost, a phenomenon known as “murmuration”.

It might seem strange that such a visual thing is described in terms of a “murmur”, but the word actually perfectly evokes the rustle of hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of tiny wings.  There has never been absolute certainty amongst ornithologists or scientists as to the purpose of these displays, or how they are achieved, but it would seem that the most likely explanation is that starlings flock together in defence from birds of prey.  Their individual positions in the murmuration vary constantly, with those at the edges in greater risk.  As for how they achieve co-ordinated flight in such huge numbers, a reaction time of under 100 milliseconds might have something to do with it!

Starlings are in many ways remarkable birds, enormously widespread and successful with a worldwide population of several hundred million.  In 1890 sixty starlings were introduced into Central Park in New York.  The North American starling population is now estimated at 200 million, all descended from those original sixty birds.  Starlings are accomplished mimics, and were once popular pets.  Even Mozart kept one, purchased from a pet shop when he heard it singing one of his compositions.

In 1799 Samuel Taylor Coleridge observed a murmuration of starlings on a coach trip, and described the sight “like smoke, mist… now it shaped itself into a circular area, inclined – now they formed a Square – now a Globe – now from complete orb into an Ellipse – then oblongated into a Balloon with the Car suspended, now a concave Semicircle; still expanding, or contracting, thinning or condensing, now glimmering and shivering, now thickening, deepening, blackening!”


The article above was first printed in Envoy, the magazine of Midhurst Parish Church.  I am an occasional contributor to Envoy and I am including a selection of my previous articles on this blog to allow them to reach more readers who might be interested in the topics.

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The Grumpy Tourist

Dignity and Impudence, by Landseer

Dignity and Impudence, by Landseer

Snippets 105. Today’s snippet is a quote from Richard Le Gallienne’s Travels in England, from 1900, an interesting travel book that we have looked at in a couple of previous snippets. I always delight in finding a travel book that goes beyond just describing things and saying how wonderful everything is, and instead gives honest opinions, whether positive or negative. These kind of books can make the author seem like a bit of a Victor Meldrew character at times, but that can also be gloriously entertaining.

From the inn, however, in which I am this evening drearily incarcerated, such taste has long since fled. It is picturesque enough on the outside, possessing indeed part of one of those inn-yard galleries from which the quality were accustomed to watch the young Elizabethan drama. But its picturesque outside only accentuates the horrors of its inside. So far as those insignificant matters, comfort, cleanliness and cooking, are concerned, it is, I am bound to admit, satisfactory — though I must qualify the word “comfort;” for surely comfort means something more than clean sheets and arm-chairs. One’s dinner may be excellent, the chair which we draw up to it luxurious, but how is it possible to enjoy either, with a portrait of the Prince Consort on one. wall, “Dignity and Impudence” on another, and a German print on a third?

During dinner I vainly strove to screw my courage to ringing up the proprietor and making some such speech as this: “My dear sir, the dinner you have provided for me is delightful. The roast duck is a dream of culinary loveliness. The peas are as green — as a meadow by Chaucer. The potatoes must have been boiled to music, and I foresee that the gooseberry tart was made in heaven. My congratulations, my thanks, are sincere, and yet — what are all these things to me? How can I enjoy them in a room which, while it thus ministers to one of my senses, so cruelly violates another? How is it possible to enjoy your dinner when suffering so acutely from your pictures? Will you, therefore, have the kindness to remove the portrait of the Prince Consort from that wall, ‘Dignity and Impudence’ from that, and that from that!”

“Also,” I might have added, “there are two pictures in my bedroom which must either make sleep impossible, or fill it with distressing nightmares such as I hesitate to face. The pictures are called ‘The First Sacrament’ and ‘The Last Sacrament.’ The one represents a young surpliced clergyman in the act of baptising an infant, while the mother in a crinoline, and the father in military uniform and dated by mutton-chop whiskers, press close to a font designed in the most distressing taste, other and earlier children in ‘steps and stairs’ about them. The second picture represents a bald-headed old gentleman lying on his back in bed, and evidently at the point of death. A middle-aged surpliced clergyman bends over him administering the sacred wafer, and the crinoline and the mutton-chop whiskers and the nice little white-stockinged grandchildren are there. This picture faces the end of my bed, and whenever I wake in the night, is there with its gruesome reminder — of the most horrible period of English taste. You cannot, I am sure, think me unreasonable in desiring the temporary removal of these pictures also.”

Dignity and Impudence is a work of art by Sir Edwin Landseer, depicting two dogs. It looks nice enough to me! However, I think most people could understand Le Gallienne’s reluctance to sleep in a room with a painting of a dying man on the wall.


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A Dream Come True

View of Florence by Gaspar van Wittel (1656-1736)

View of Florence by Gaspar van Wittel (1656-1736)

Creepy History 25. For the last couple of “Creepy History” articles we have been looking at the supernatural experiences of Bayard Taylor. They are merely a footnote in the life of this prolific traveller and adventurer, collected together in a couple of chapters of At Home and Abroad (1859). The first of the two relevant chapters focusses on the spirit world, with Taylor concluding that “I am fully satisfied that there was nothing whatever of a supernatural character” to the events described, despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary from his own experience. However, in the second chapter he looks at the realms of supernatural powers of the mind, and his opinions on this topic are quite the opposite.

When I was last in Florence, the sculptor Powers related to me a still more remarkable story, which had come to pass only a few days before my arrival. A young English lady of his acquaintance, who was living with her brother in the city, was on terms of great intimacy and affection with a lady of her own age, who was spending the summer with her father in a villa among the Apennines, near Pistoja. This friend had invited her to visit her during the summer; she had accepted the invitation; and the middle of August was fixed upon as the time. Three weeks before, however, the young lady had a remarkable dream. It seemed to her that the day of her departure for the villa near Pistoja had arrived. Her trunk was packed; and early in the morning, a very curious old carriage drove to the door to receive her. The vetturino slung her trunk to the axletree with ropes — a disposition of baggage which she had never before seen. She took her seat, and for several hours journeyed down the vale of the Arno, noticing the scenery, which was entirely new to her. Several trifling incidents occurred on the way, and there was a delay occasioned by the giving way of the harness; but towards evening she reached the Apennine villa.

As the carriage approached the building, she perceived the father of her friend standing in the door, with a very troubled countenance. He came forward, as she was preparing to alight, laid his hand on the carriage door, and said: “My daughter is very ill, and no one is allowed to see her. To-night is the crisis of her fever, which will decide whether she will recover. I have made arrangements for you to spend the night in the villa of Mr. Smith yonder; and pray heaven that my daughter’s condition will permit you to return to us to-morrow!” Thereupon he gave directions to the vetturino, who drove to Mr. Smith’s villa. The host received her kindly, ushered her into a broad entrance-hall, and said: “I will endeavor to make you comfortable for the night. That will be your room,” pointing to a glass door, with green curtains, at the end of the hall. Here her dream suddenly stopped.

The next morning she related the whole story to her brother. For a few days afterwards, they occasionally referred to it; but as she received information that her friend was in excellent health, she gradually banished from her mind the anxiety it had caused her. The day fixed upon for her journey at length arrived. What was her astonishment, when the identical queer old carriage of her dream drove up to the door, and her trunk was slung by ropes to the axletree! This was the commencement; and during the whole day everything occurred precisely as she had already seen it. Towards evening, she arrived at the villa near Pistoja; and the father of her friend stood in the door, with a troubled countenance. He came forward, repeating the intelligence of his daughter’s illness in the same words, and ordered the vetturino to drive to the villa of Mr. Smith. The excitement and alarm of the young lady had been continually on the increase; so that, when she finally reached the broad entrance-hall, and Mr. Smith said, “I will endeavor to make you comfortable for the night. That will be your room” (pointing to the glass door with green curtains), her nerves, strung to their utmost tension, gave way, and she fell upon the floor in a swoon. Fortunately, there was no ground for superstitious forebodings. The crisis passed over happily, and the very next day she was permitted to nurse her convalescent friend.

Here the dream, in all its details, was narrated three weeks before its verification — thus setting aside any question of the imagination having assisted in the latter. It is one of the most satisfactory examples of second-sight I have ever heard of, and this must be my justification for giving it to the world.

The sculptor mentioned in the quote above was Hiram Powers (1805 to 1873). More about him can be found in the work of John Corson, which we looked at in Journals 10 Part 4. Taylor was a successful American poet, who used his earnings from his poetry to fund travels in Europe in the late 1840s. He wrote about his experiences, and his articles were published in the Tribune, the Saturday Evening Post and the United States Gazette, leading to a career working as a correspondent for the Tribune during the California gold rush. When his wide died in 1850 he threw himself into his work, but his health began to suffer, so he instead embarked upon extensive travels around the world, and his journals were published in several volumes. We looked at one of his works in detail in Journals 7.

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Travel Changed the World

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House

Snippets 104. Last week we looked at a quote from A Country Book: for the field, the forest, and the fireside by William Howitt, published in 1859. For much of the book he confines himself to observations on the changing of the seasons, but he also has some things to say about 19th Century life, and how things were changing at the time. He does not shy away from criticising things that he disapproves of, harking back to simpler times, but he is not entirely averse to change. If I had to name the greatest advancement of the 19th Century, without any hesitation I would say the speed of transport. This was the century that saw travel develop from an expensive and time-consuming luxury, to something affordable and convenient, within the grasp of working families.

Think of the steam-boat and the steam-train, ready to bear away their thousands to the very scenes where they would wish to be. To carry the people of the cities, especially of enormous London, afar into the country; to the open heath — the fresh forest — to the seaside — to old halls, and gardens where the mysterious spirit of beauty has been awaiting their arrival for a thousand years. To carry the country people, on the contrary, to the towns — to the sight of the animated bustling crowds, rich shops, noble buildings, and galleries of painting and statuary — to zoological gardens and scientific spectacles full, to them, of the enchantment of wonder.

Do we talk of impossible things? The cheap trains already make such things within the reach of every man, woman, and child that can but get a single day, and a few shillings to spend on it, in the year. On one day 7,000 people visited, by means of an excursion train, the splendid house and grounds of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, in the Peak of Derbyshire; and every day there, and at the old hall of Haddon, and at numbers of noble halls all over the country, throughout the summer, the coming and going of the people is like the visiting of a fair.

Chatsworth House and Gardens now attracts over half a million visitors every year.


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The Psychic Traveller

Acorn Street, Boston, by Childe Hassam (1919)

Acorn Street, Boston, by Childe Hassam (1919)

Creepy History 24. For the last couple of “Creepy History” articles we have been looking at the supernatural experiences of Bayard Taylor. They are merely a footnote in the life of this prolific traveller and adventurer, collected together in a couple of chapters of At Home and Abroad (1859). The first of the two relevant chapters focusses on the spirit world, with Taylor concluding that “I am fully satisfied that there was nothing whatever of a supernatural character” to the events described, despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary from his own experience. However, in the second chapter he looks at the realms of supernatural powers of the mind, and his opinions on this topic are quite the opposite. In fact, he is entirely convinced of possessing some special abilities of his own.

During a visit to Boston, four or five years ago, I accepted an invitation to take tea with a distinguished author. A gentleman who had often visited him, offered to accompany me, as his residence was in a part of the city with which I was then unacquainted. We were walking along the street, conversing very earnestly upon some subject of mutual interest, when all at once I was seized with the idea that we were passing the author’s house. “Stop!” I said. “Mr. – lives here.” My friend halted, surprised, and surveyed the house. ” No,” said he, ” that is not his residence; it is in the next block. But I thought you had never visited him.” “Nor have I,” I replied; “I never was in this street before, but I am positive he lives there.” ” And I am positive he does not,” my friend rejoined; “there is a large brass plate upon his door, with the name upon it ; and, you see, here is no name whatever. Besides, it is not in this block.” “I will go further with you,” was my stubborn answer; “but we shall have to return again.” The presumption of his certain knowledge did not in the least shake my confidence. We searched the next block, but did not find the author’s name on any door. With some difficulty, I persuaded my friend to return, and try the house I had pointed out: it was the right one! I can explain this curious incident in no other way, than by assuming the existence of a natural clairvoyant faculty in the mind.

Taylor was a successful American poet, who used his earnings from his poetry to fund travels in Europe in the late 1840s. He wrote about his experiences, and his articles were published in the Tribune, the Saturday Evening Post and the United States Gazette, leading to a career working as a correspondent for the Tribune during the California gold rush. When his wide died in 1850 he threw himself into his work, but his health began to suffer, so he instead embarked upon extensive travels around the world, and his journals were published in several volumes. We looked at one of his works in detail in Journals 7.

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Chirping, Gobbling, Hooting, Croaking!

Natural History of the Animal Kingdom, 1885

Natural History of the Animal Kingdom, 1885

Snippets 103. A Country Book: for the field, the forest, and the fireside by William Howitt was published in 1859. This charming book contains one chapter per month, each focussing on country life at the relevant time of the year. For this snippet let’s look at Howitt’s thoughts on the month of February. Although he acknowledges that it can be a bleak month, he goes on to describe all the subtle changes that indicate the approach of spring.

Various signs of returning spring occur at different times in February. The woodlark, one of our earliest and sweetest songsters, often begins his note at the very entrance of the month; the thrush now commences his song, and tomtits are seen hanging, on the eaves of barns and thatched outhouses, particularly if the weather be snowy and severe; rooks now revisit their breeding-trees, and arrange the stations of their future nests. The harsh, loud voice of the missel thrush is now heard towards the end of the month; and, if the weather be mild, the hedge-sparrow renews its chirping-note; turkey-cocks now strut and gobble; partridges begin to pair; the house-pigeon has young; field-crickets open their holes, and owls hoot; gnats play about, and insects swarm under sunny hedges; the stone-curlew clamours, and frogs croak. By the end of February, the raven, too, generally lays its eggs, and begins to sit. About this time the green woodpecker is heard in the woods making a loud noise; the elder-tree discloses its flower-buds; the catkins of the hazel become very conspicuous in the hedges, and young leaves are seen budding on the gooseberry and currant bushes about the end of the month.

The winter, in fact, spite of occasional frosts and frowns, is over and gone, and the voice of the turtle-dove and the singing-bird is heard once more in our land…

What a country this used to be for jollity and heart’s ease; what a change there must have been! We see the ruins of old castles and old abbeys standing, and we think them beautiful. And we read of old feasts and festivals, and days on which the people of England came out into the sun, and the heart of gladness and kindly good fellowship was as one great dancing heart throughout the throng.


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A Ghost in the Night

houseCreepy History 23. For the last Creepy History blog post we looked at a quote from At Home and Abroad, by Bayard Taylor, published in 1859. Taylor was a successful American poet, who used his earnings from his poetry to fund travels in Europe in the late 1840s. He wrote about his experiences, and his articles were published in the Tribune, the Saturday Evening Post and the United States Gazette, leading to a career working as a correspondent for the Tribune during the California gold rush. When his wide died in 1850 he threw himself into his work, but his health began to suffer, so he instead embarked upon extensive travels around the world, and his journals were published in several volumes. At Home and Abroad is a collection of anecdotes from his travels that had not featured specifically in his previous travel books. One section of the book, ‘My Supernatural Experiences’, collects together strange happenings during Taylor’s travels, such as the following creepy encounter:

One more incident, of a more decided character, closes the list of my experiences. During my last visit to London, I accepted an invitation to pass two or three days with a banker, who occupies a fine estate on the Thames, near Windsor. The house which was a palace in its extent and the character of its appointments was built by a former Earl of T- , who ruined himself in erecting it. Gardens, graperies, and a noble park, stretching along the bank of the Thames, completed the attractions of one of the loveliest places in England. When the hour for rest arrived, I was conducted to a chamber looking towards the towered entrance, and a group of magnificent cedars of Lebanon, on the lawn. The night was misty and moonless so that, after I had extinguished the candle, the room remained in almost complete darkness.

It was midnight when I went to bed; and I had slept, I suppose, until somewhere between two and three, when I suddenly awoke, and to my surprise, found that my candle was still burning. My first idea was, that I had forgotten to extinguish it. Closing my eyes, while revolving this question in my mind, I opened them again upon a room darkened as before. Through the uncurtained window, I saw the dim tops of the cedars rising against the misty November sky. At the same instant, I detected a slight noise at the door as if some one was cautiously trying to enter. But as the key was turned, the attempt was in vain; and I presently heard the same noise at the door of the adjoining dressing-room. Listening intently, I became aware of a slight creak at the door of communication between the two rooms. This was followed, not by a foot step, but by the hushed, rustling sound of a long dress trailing upon the floor. The sound marched slowly across the room, and approached the bedside, where it stopped. Then the gentlest touch as, indeed, of airy fingers drew the bed-clothes straight, and tucked the ends of the cover lids and sheets into the space between the mattress and bedstead. Meanwhile, I lay perfectly still, in a passive state of surprise and wonder.

When, however, the gentle ministry ceased, and I again caught the rustle of the trailing dress on the carpet, I sprang bolt upright in bed, and peered into the gloom, in hope of seeing the figure. But the room was a gulf of darkness, except the bit of window not covered by the cedars; and by this time the rustle had reached the dressing-room door. In a few seconds more, it had passed away completely; and, after exhausting myself in speculations as to the character of the visit, I slept. On mentioning the incident at break fast, I found that none of the guests had been disturbed; nor could I learn that anything of the kind had previously happened in the house, although one gentleman affirmed that the old mansion, which was pulled down by Lord T- before building the present one, had the reputation of being haunted.

Two different explanations occurred to me. Either the imaginative part of the brain was dreaming, while the senses were awake as in the former cases or the incident was real, and the mysterious visitor was a somnambulist possibly a housekeeper or a chambermaid, unconsciously repeating her rounds to see that everything was in order. The vision of the lighted candle must have been an illusion an instantaneous dream suggested by that electric spark of light which is sometimes struck from the eyes on opening them suddenly.

In all these experiences, notwithstanding the liveliness and permanence of the impression produced on my mind, I am fully satisfied that there was nothing whatever of a supernatural character. So long as the visible world, and the constitution of our mortal nature, furnishes us with a sufficient explanation of such phenomena, why should we lay hold upon the invisible and the immortal?

Although Taylor was “fully satisfied”, his “sufficient explanation” requires the coincidental combination of two unlikely events: a sleepwalking housekeeper and the optical illusion of a lit candle. Sometimes the rational explanation in these matters requires a greater leap of logic than the irrational!

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