Possumhaw: Murmurs of murmurations


Shannon Bardwell



"Blackbirds singing in the dead of night ... " 


-- John Lennon and Paul McCartney 




Stepping outside at twilight, a whishing and whirling of hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of blackbirds could be heard as the birds were twirling across the sky. For a moment they may rest in the treetops or light on the ground, nosing under dry leaves. Then in a flash, as if in one accord, they are off again in a choreographed aerial ballet.  


The phenomenon is called a murmuration. Up until the last dozen years scientists were baffled at how this mystifying event took place. How could this enormous number of birds fly in what appeared such a synchronized pattern. With new technologies that allowed recording of the birds in flight, several discoveries were made.  


One discovery was the whole event was invariably sparked by a predator, such as a Prairie falcon, merlin, eagle, or most often a red-tailed hawk. The grouping together of birds with what appeared erratic to the predator served to protect the whole community.  


How the birds seemed to fly together effortlessly was attributed to the closeness of the birds so they could sense the movement of the seven birds next to them. The velocity of one bird affects the velocity of all the other birds. Why the number seven no one knows, only that seven seems to be a significant number in nature. Theoretical physicist Giorgio Parisi says, "The change in the behavior state of one animal affects and is affected by that of all the other animals in the group, no matter how large the group is." 


There's a lot about science and birds I don't understand, but haven't you seen that happen, one participant's behavior affecting all the others behavior, whether in the workplace or community? Whether it's birds, animals or people. 


Murmurations most often happen in the cooler months between October and March. They usually occur in agricultural areas where foodstuffs are plentiful. And the birds are not actually all blackbirds. They are starlings, but blackbirds and grackles often join in. From a distance the birds look black, but starlings are smaller than blackbirds and are colored deep purple and green with tiny speckles. Their bills can be brown to yellow, depending on the season. The starlings call is like a clear whistle, or whirling sound, sometimes like a rattle. The starling can also mimic other birds' calls, which makes it all the more confusing.  


The starling was introduced to North America, specifically New York City, in 1890. By 1910, the bird was firmly established and soon covered much of the United States. It was in 1926 that the first starling was sighted in Mississippi. 


Starlings seem to be a wandering bird. They have no homeplace and seem to go wherever the wind blows. It can be somewhat of a nuisance to have a million birds hovering over your homeplace, but if you have a chance encounter, or watch a murmuration live or by internet set to music, you just might be utterly amazed.


Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.


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