A Murmuration of Starlings

| 3/27/2016 5:28:00 PM

Tags: nature writing, birding, starlings, wildlife, invasive species, Michigan, Jerry Dennis,

Illustration “Murmuration” by artist Glenn Wolff 

Illustration “Murmuration” by artist Glenn Wolff

If you’ve ever watched flocks of starlings (or have seen them on YouTube), you’ve probably been enchanted by those swirling, switching clouds of birds. Have you ever wondered what causes them? Or why they’re called “murmurations”?

Starlings are a scourge. They crowd out native birds, spread disease, and steal mountains of grain. It was a thick-headed decision for a chemical-company executive named Eugene Schieffelin to carry them across the Atlantic in the 1890s and release them into Central Park because he thought it’d be cool if all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare were in America.

We know now what a bad idea that was. But starlings are here to stay, so we might as well accept them. And the fact is, they’re interesting — and beautiful. Examine one up close and you’ll see plumage stippled with stars strewn across a background of black and iridescent purple.

A few years ago, I was driving on a highway in the agricultural flatlands of Michigan. Across a field, at a distance of perhaps a mile, I saw what I thought was a plume of smoke hanging low in the sky. Then I realized it was a flock of thousands or tens of thousands of birds. In North America, such flocks often include red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, sparrows, and others, but almost certainly they are comprised mostly of starlings.

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