Do you know starlings? Many people consider them nuisance birds. It is true that they are not native to North America and that they can be both destructive to crops and hazardous to air craft. To be honest, when they descend on my yard in large numbers and gobble up all the seeds and nuts in my bird feeders, I too find them irksome. I understand the impulse, even the need, to find ways to control starling populations.
But starlings also have redeeming features. While they are not as brightly colored as cardinals, bluebirds, goldfinches, or parrots, when seen up close they are beautiful in their own right, clothed as they are in iridescent feathers and sometimes bearing star-like spots. The very name “starling” derives from the fact that, when they are in flight with their relatively short wings opened wide, their silhouettes can resemble little dark stars. And in my area, at least, they often travel good-naturedly with other dark birds—robins, grackles, and red-winged blackbirds, for example.
You may know that a flock of starlings is called a murmuration. Perhaps you have seen murmurations, either in person or via YouTube videos, in which tens— or hundreds—of thousands of flocking starlings fly together, looping and swooping and swirling in fluid, mesmerizing patterns. I once drove across a York River bridge at the same time a murmuration of starlings was moving over the river. The bridge spans about two-thirds of a mile, and the starlings stretched from one bank to the other, moving south. It was all I could do to keep my eyes on the road. Just the other day, I was again in my car, this time on a stretch of road lined on both sides with mature deciduous trees showing their fall colors. It had been another in a series of heavyhearted mornings of disturbing national news. Then my eyes were drawn upward where, between the red and orange leaves and against the backdrop of a bright blue sky, a murmuration of starlings was at play. Ahhh. For that moment, the ache in my heart was allayed.
Today is Election Day. I don’t know how things will go. I worry that, no matter who wins, our deep national divisions will not be healed, our super-sized fears will not be allayed, and our strident fractiousness will not be soothed. I was feeling apprehension and inner turmoil this morning even as I tried to “do what I could” by working an early shift at the polls, handing out sample ballots and thanking people for coming out to vote. And then it appeared—a murmuration of starlings, dancing and weaving in amazing grace high above the high school parking lot. For several minutes, the birds put on quite a lovely visual and auditory show, one that transcended the political moment and reminded me again that there are creative forces and energies in this world that erupt in sheer beauty neither caused by nor beholden to human intervention. It was a gift that delighted and lifted my heart and let me feel, if only for a moment, the peace that passes human understanding. May we all be visited by that peace in the days to come.
Here is a lovely video of a murmuration photographed by Dylan Winter in the UK and set to Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Watch it full screen if you can, and turn your sound on.