Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Murmuration of Starlings

Drawing of European Starling on ledge
Murmuration of Starlings

At about 2 p.m. on Sunday, as we were driving near exit 16 on the NY State Thruway, we saw what appeared to be a midnight ballet in the cloudless afternoon sky.  Thousands of small flying dancers twirled, swirled, dipped, and twisted.  Traffic slowed.  We sat in awe staring at a murmuration of hundreds or even a thousand European starlings.  Scientists think that the murmurations are precipitated by a nearby falcon.  But whether that is the case or not, they mystify us. Researchers examining the phenomena closely say that there is no leader in the flock.  They communicate as a collective. Their behavior continues to fascinate and puzzle us.  But one thing we do know for sure is how European starlings got to North America and why.  As Steve Mirsky explains in his article in Scientific American, in the late19th century, a group called the American Acclimatization Society made a decision to introduce to the United States every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s writing, and by the way, Shakespeare mentioned some 600 birds, so the task was big.  The starling was only mentioned once in Henry IV, Part I and then because of the starling’s ability to learn to speak.  And what the bird was going to be taught to say was the name “Mortimer,” a name that would drive Henry bats.  In any case, it is said that Eugene Schieffelin, a member of the group and a Bronx resident, took the responsibility of bringing some 60+ starlings to Central Park in 1890 and 1891. To say that they are prolific is to put it mildly.  Mirsky tells us, “By 1950 starlings could be found coast to coast, north past Hudson Bay and south into Mexico. Their North American numbers today top 200 million.” To many they are pests because of the way they compete with native birds for nesting spots and food. But like them or not, they seem to be here to stay along with their awe-full murmurations.  I enjoyed drawing this starling with all the beautiful spots that decorate the ends of the feathers for the Field Guide.

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