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.