Sunday, September 2, 2012

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Four and twenty blackbirds
"is based on a 16th-century amusement ... 
to place live birds in a pie, as a form of entremet,"
an elaborate entertainment between dinner courses.
Live birds were placed inside a pie shell so that once the pastry was cut,
their sudden flight into the air would astonish and entertain the guests.

The early evening of this August's blue moon,
I found myself astonished and entertained
by what is called a murmuration of starlings,
murmuration being the little-known collective term for a flock,
as in a "murder" of crows or a "passel" of pigeons.

Many people consider starlings a bird of a lesser order,
even though they are not bad looking,
with an iridescent sheen on their wings
and speckles on their dark heads and bellies.

Starling photo compliments of
 <p>Image: <a href="" target="_blank"></a></p>

But their good looks aside,
starlings are often criticized for bullying other birds at feeders,
for usurping the nests of more appreciated songbirds,
and for their unfortunate habit of creating frequent messes.
The last I can personally attest to,
having once naively placed a block of suet
on a deck table one winter morning,
only to witness a rowdy crowd of hooligan starlings descend on it en masse
with an attitude that can only be described as
an unpleasant mixture of greed, lust, and gluttony.
They gobbled it in milliseconds, leaving a dreadful layer of feathers
and the unmentionable splattered all over the table and deck.
I hadn't even been given the chance to hang the suet block up in a tree.

But this recent evening, there was no suet to incite the mob's food lust.
When I first walked out of the house,
I could hear hundreds of them tweeting, chattering, and chirping,
as they flew into a wooded area across the street from our house
and settled into the tall pines.
I wondered if they were getting ready to roost for the night.

Some pecked at insects, others flapped their wings 
or flitted from branch to branch and bough to bough. 
Every moment or so, some would take off north by northwest,
then return south by southeast.
And several would go flying off in an arc, meeting others on their return.

Their routine appeared orchestrated.
First they went flying across the street to the shelter of other tall trees,
then, they came winging their way back
before  again setting forth above the rooftops.

But suddenly their aerodynamic ballet came to an end.
All at once, a threat, real or imagined, prompted most of them 
to flap their wings  and depart over the lake to the south.
There is no way to adequately describe
the soft thud from hundreds of feathered wings beating in unison,
while simultaneously the cacophony of tweets and chirps is silenced.

I decided to research why so many starlings would have congregated together.
And I came across this video, which enjoyed "viral" status on the Internet last year.
A friend had shared it on Facebook back then, so I had seen it,
but this is a slightly longer version showing the murmuration of starlings
flying over the River Shannon in Ireland. It's only a few minutes long,
but I guarantee anyone who watches it will catch their breath
and marvel at the sheer elegance of the sight.
Watch it all the way to the end to see the expression on the girl's face. It is priceless:

I love this video because it demonstrates how unity of spirit can transform
 messy, covetous starlings into creatures of magnificence.
And that means there's hope for the rest of us.

*Cited in Wikipedia: [2] Giovanni de Roselli's Epulario, quale tratta del modo de cucinare ogni carne, ucelli, pesci... (1549), of which an English translation, Epulario, or the Italian Banquet, was published in 1598 (Mary Augusta Scott, Elizabethan Translations from the Italian no. 256, p. 333f.). Accessed: 2Sep2012

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