Thursday, January 31, 2013

Birds in Winter

a bird ballet

starling (sturnus vulgaris) planning today's choreography

Two winters ago I was in the parking lot in Greve in Chianti towards dusk. A loud chirping and rush of wings made me look up at the darkening sky. Thousands of birds were streaming and wheeling above me, calling and settling on surrounding trees then rising again. I stood there fascinated, surprised that no one else seemed to bother with this scene. On asking a passerby what the birds were I was told "storni" which is starlings.Of course the locals see the birds every year, they are commonplace, like pigeons in the city. Still.

Just yesterday I was working near our vegie patch when a very sudden and loud gushing, whooshing noise from a little higher up the hill startled me. My first thought was of a mass of water released from a dam or pool. Of course we have no such thing, but that was precisely what it sounded like.

Seconds later a host of starlings rose into the air from behind a stand of trees. There must have been hundreds. As they wheeled and turned in the sky their wings whirred and almost sang.

Just today on the Italian paper il Corriere della Sera, this film was published, which I have tracked to YouTube. It doesn't reproduce the sounds I heard but it does record the extraordinary annual dance of the starlings.
Here is a reference from the International Business Times 
which explains more ... 

"...breathtaking phenomenon called murmurations. This is when a huge flock of birds that are in migration form a magical shape-shifting flight pattern in the sky. The birds tend to flock together for protection and can reach speeds of up to 20 mph/32kph...Scientists aren't sure how the starlings do their complex dance...the birds have a quicksilver reaction time of under 100 milliseconds, which prevents them from colliding with each other in the air."

This is another clip which apparently has gone 'viral'; it includes some scientific explanations of the starlings' startling steering abilities.

Here instead is a curiosity regarding one starling and Mozart. It appears that the birds are excellent mimics: 


  1. From a friend and neighbour:

    You were spot on for they were massed in the thousands this morning. They were chattering away as if it were the end of the world, and suddenly they were suctioned up into the sky then settled again, gossiping furiously. Then another upward explosion and over the house they flew, dropping brown cacche by the kilo. Fortunately we were standing in the doorway of the house.
    The locals have seen starlings for time eternal. They usually stayed in the plains where grain was cultivated. Our neighbour has theorized that they have moved to upper elevations for lack of food at lower elevations. Thank goodness it's not cherry season. Nothing would be left.

  2. From another friend, from Settignano:

    I have that same wonder when I see the starlings - they have just begun swarming again up here. On a walk the other day, there was suddenly that tremendous whooshing sound, and when I looked up - there they were, probably 100’s, all perched on one of the overhead electric wires, their small dark profiles a little eery!

  3. Another friend writes how 100mph winds in France have not managed to ground the birds:
    "The horses are patient as ever, the hens struggle around gamely with feathers blown out in all directions, and one of those magnificent giant flocks of starlings is right now being tossed over the sky above the house, but remains valiantly airborne..."
    I have a feeling they were using the wind to their advantage....


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