A murmuration of starlings

“Murmuration?” Isn’t that a spectacularly lovely word? Say it out loud. And again. I bet you’re smiling.

Murmuration pertains only to a flock of starlings. I suspect it has something to do with all the noise they make, especially right about now. Only starlings don’t flock alone, not as near as I can tell. They gang up with other so-called black birds: redwings, grackles, even the cowbird and whoever else wants to join the crowd. My trouble is they sit high in a tree (sometimes more than one), blacken the branches but remain so far away I can’t truly identify one bird from another.

If you’ve been aware of this phenomena at all, you also know the racket they make. It’s enough to call me away from whatever I’m doing inside, just to hurry out to look upward. And gape in amazement.

My huge Random House dictionary knows this about the birds. The word isn’t even listed in the smaller Webster. Did you know those huge wonderful dictionaries are no longer being made? I’m told it’s because everything is now found at our fingertips on the computer. Humbug! If I’m in the midst of a gripping novel, I do not want to have to rush back in to turn on my computer which may or may not be working at that particular moment to find a definition. It’s so much easier to check the big book in the hall.

Random House will grant, however, that it can also mean an act or instance of murmuring, as when a celebrity is spotted by the waiting crowd.

I confess to having even more trouble with this for a crowd, in those circumstances, would hardly be quiet as I presume murmur is meant to be. And those blankety-blank starlings! Well, if it’s loud enough to draw me away from housework, it is hardly a murmur. Bees might murmur. At least they’re quieter.

I have a great big bird encyclopedia (though it’s hardly more than half the size of the dictionary which also surprises me) that does not acknowledge murmuration though it speaks of startlings gathering in “enormous” numbers in marshes or groves of trees. Even robins might be invited to join. I had just presumed that this was a final and very noisy send-off only, now that I think about, starlings don’t migrate and, the book says, soon roost by themselves once the temperatures drop. So I guess it’s more a matter of bonhomie, a last raucous send-off to summer.

Starlings also, it turns out, have much more to say than this chatter I tend to associate with the rather undistinguished bird. They can, to quote my big book, utter a “chorus of squeaks, chatters, creaks, chirps,” even what sounds like a human ‘wolf whistle’ and, if that weren’t enough, they have been known to imitate the calls of the bobwhite, killdeer, flicker, phoebe, wood pewee, crow, even the barking of a dog or the cat’s meow.”

So it really isn’t the murmuration that’s what’s important. It’s that great big social gathering which the birds do . . . for whatever reason may please. Seen in that way, I’ll find a special joy next time I hurry out for a murmuration.

Neat word!

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com