Jim McGuire: A murmuration in the sky

By Jim McGuire

Contributing Columnist

Collective nouns—descriptive words used to denote groups of certain things—are nothing new. Their usage dates back to medieval times.

In 1486, a volume now known as “The Book of Saint Albans” was penned—at least in part—by Dame Juliana Berners, a prioress at Sopwell Nunnery. This ancient volume, still in print, contains a collection of pieces on hunting, fishing, hawking and heraldry.

In the portion dealing with hunting, the good Dame included a list of collective nouns pertaining to animals. Specific descriptive nouns for groups of specific game birds and mammals.

Hunters in those days referred to these descriptive nouns as “terms of venery.” For example—there was a covey of partridge; a sleuth of bears; a scurry of squirrels; and a leash of deer.

However, there were collective nouns for all sorts of creatures—domestic animals, birds, fish, even insects: a herd of cattle; a clouder of cats; a sounder of swine, a swarm of bees; a school of tuna; a yoke of oxen; a swarm of gnats It was a skein of geese when the birds were in the sky, but a gaggle when they were on the ground.

Many of these old terms endured and are still in common use today. We regularly speak of a pride of lions, a pack of wolves, a troop of monkeys, and a colony of bats. How about a fold of sheep, a warren of rabbits, or a pod of whales?

Perhaps the prettiest, most poetic, or wonderfully descriptive of the old collective nouns were those applied to groups of birds: a charm of finches, a wake of vultures, an exaltation of larks, a parliament of owls, a murder of crows.

Recently, while rambling a favorite public lands expanse, I paused to sit awhile on a big glacial erratic near the top of a long hill. Below me was a vast and sprawling meadow—more grassy than weedy, now withered in hues of mostly brown and tan.

Suddenly the morning solitude was interrupted by a rush of sound—a silky wall of noise, like a great background wash of static electricity which carried peripheral overtones of screeches and chirps.

A thick cloud of starlings abruptly filled my vision—an animate and rushing storm of black confetti, which lifted and fell rhythmically as if carried by a gusting wind.

What immediately came to mind was the lovely old collective noun for their group occurrence…a murmuration of starlings.

The dense mass of motion and sound swept over the hillside like a wraith, turned, dropped, and disappeared as a dark vapor, spreading into the autumn grass.

The din increased in volume though the birds themselves were invisible. I stood and walked towards their landing zone. The feeding clatter diminished.

Abruptly, with a great whoosh, almost an exhalation, a thousand—maybe several thousand—starlings arose from the grass and flew in a tight, synchronized circle to another landing spot 50 yards distant. Sunlight through flashing wings alternately illuminated and silhouetted the birds, depending on angle—an astonishing light-to-dark shift that was simply stunning.

After following and flushing the starlings from a couple more feeding locations, I returned to my rock and spent nearly an hour watching the flock.

Individual birds weren’t particularly interesting—but their massed agglomerate was fascinating.

The flock would never spend more than a few minutes on the ground between flights. During these flights the birds lifted and turned as one—a single entity; a whole composed of countless parts. The flock was a sort of organism—a pointillist’s vision of antimatter.

Sometimes the airborne mass split neatly in two, like a much hurried replication of a cell. Often the split would be uneven—a few hundred or few dozen starlings going one way, while the vast majority went another.

Occasionally the detached groups remained separated through a feeding cycle. Usually, however, this partition lasted only a few moments. The groups would collide in midair, blending in an instant, like two water droplets on a tabletop fast swelling into one.

The precision of those birds in flight was breathtaking, flowing above the tall grass in a black swirl, twisting and turning as if on rails, in perfect synchronistic direction changes.

Synchronous flight is still a mystery. We don’t yet know how a densely-massed flock of birds can execute those instantaneous shifts seemingly as one.

How can they swoop, turn, dive, and switch direction so quickly without mishap?

We do know it’s not through the signals of a leader, because slow-motion photography shows that leadership within a flock is constantly changing.

One theory holds that birds in aggregate are capable of in-flight communication through bio-information transfer, which is thought to operate via electromagnetic fields.

Another hypothesis involves the mathematical chaos theory—the notion being that massed birds in flight have to follow a prescribed set of rules. They turn synchronously because that’s their only choice.

However they manage, it was a joy to watch that starling flock execute their exquisite unison maneuvers above the field. A dark autumn grace, filled with life.

A murmuration of starlings was definitely the perfect descriptive term.