A Murmuration of Starlings

Murmurations: Spectacular Starlings Signal Winter Is On Its Way

A Murmuration of Starlings arriving at Gretna in the Scottish Borders on November 1, 2011
by Owen Humphreys (PA/Landov)

by Sonia van Gilder Cooke
Time Lightbox (click through to see all images)

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A Murmuration of Starlings (4)
by Owen Humphreys (PA/Landov)

No one knows why they do it. Yet each fall, thousands of starlings dance in the twilight above Gretna, Scotland. The birds gather in magical shape-shifting flocks called murmurations, having migrated in the millions from Russia and Scandinavia to escape winter’s bite. Scientists aren’t sure how they do it, either. Even complex algorithmic models haven’t yet explained the starlings’ acrobatics, which rely on the tiny bird’s quicksilver reaction time of under 100 milliseconds to avoid aerial collisions—and predators—in the giant flock. Despite their show of force in the dusky sky, starlings have declined significantly in the UK in recent years, perhaps because of a drop in nesting sites. The birds still roost in several of Britain’s rural pastures, however, settling down to sleep (and chatter) after the evening’s ballet.

Sonia van Gilder Cooke is a reporter in TIME’s London Bureau.

Note: Murmuration . . . isn’t that the best word? It deserves to encircle the tongue lovingly. I love this word.

                   

Starlings in Winter

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

~ Mary Oliver

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