Murmurations

April is National Poetry month, so I thought I’d post something by one of my favorite poets. Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019) wrote frequently about the natural world and the creatures in it. Birds are subjects of some of her loveliest work; in 2016, I read her poem Snow Geese at the memorial service of a close friend.

Although winter is behind us, something inspired me to share 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.

Starlings at the De Houtwiel nature reserve in the northern Netherlands: a spectacle of both sight and sound.

What inspired me to share this particular poem was having seen Søren Solkær’s photos and videos of starling murmurations on The New York Times website last week. Solkær, a Danish photographer, recently published an entire book, Black Sun, of his starling photographs. In the Times piece he writes:

In creating this series of images, I was inspired by a number of other art forms, including classical landscape painting, calligraphy and Japanese woodblock prints. I was also inspired by the birds themselves. When starlings move as a single unified organism and assert themselves against the sky, they create a strong visual expression, like that of a calligraphic brush stroke. Lines and shapes emerge within the swarm, bringing to life physical abstractions and calling to mind the patterns formed by interfering waves.

The birds have their critics. They’re a non-native invasive species, are known to bully other birds, can damage various agricultural crops, and produce prodigious amounts of excrement. And yet their movements en masse are almost otherworldly in their beauty.

Murmurations unfold above a silhouetted Roman skyline.

Indeed they are, as Mary Oliver wrote, ‘improbable beautiful‘….


Amusing trivia tidbit: Starlings are adept mimics. A 1990 article in American Scientist cited a number of examples, including one bird that, when the TV was on, chanted “Defense!” (in apparent imitation of its humans watching basketball games), and another that surprised its owner by spouting, “Does Hammacher Schlemmer have a toll-free number?”

3 comments

  • A little research revealed that Sturnus vulgaris (Common Starling) is an introduced species here too, and considered a pest for much the same reasons, one assumes, as related in your text.

    Confession time. Despite having enjoyed collective nouns forever, I don’t think I have ever encountered murmuration before. My vocabulary is richer for your post, which I deem ‘classic Augenblick’ despite failing to report what Hammacher Schlemmer’s toll free number actually is.

    Liked by 1 person

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