Yesterday, a roost of starlings rose as we passed, became a murmuration. Circling us, a metre from our upturned faces and awkward pirouettes, a hundred starlings swooped, dived, rose as one, looped to return to the branches, giggling for a moment, took flight again, a shining cloud, a jade and violet twist, a dizzying question mark, before leaving us for the rooftops.
I grew up with the impression that starlings were common, rowdy types not to be admired. Not, I think, for their name vulgaris, but because they once formed huge flocks in cities like Liverpool, where my family comes from, making not only a noise, but a mess.
But, stop and listen to their chatter, to their electronic clicks and beeps, and for mimicry of birds and other sounds, from curlews and buzzards, to ringtones and reversing vans. A starling’s repertoire can include up to 35 songs and sounds. Aristotle, Pliny and Shakespeare believed they could call human words. Nothing common about that.
And, starlings were considered messengers of the spirit world, a sign that change is coming. Their murmurations invite pareidolia - the finding of familiar patterns where none exist – as we see in the flock a winking eye, a castle in the sky, or that question mark. Even the word murmuration has a little magic in it. Not to be ignored.
The old dictionary describes them as small black and brown birds, but they’ve ‘stars in their black feathers’, as Helen Oliver wrote. In summer they’re iridescent purple-green. They're never dull. (I’m sure I saw their shimmer: perhaps, like us, they were still in their summer clothes.)
My favourite thing about starlings is that because they see in ultraviolet too, they’re rainbow disco gorgeous to each other all year round, in colours we shall never see.
But we can imagine them. Why not fly with them, for a while?
'Once I spoke the language of the flowers, Once I understood each word the caterpillar said, Once I smiled in secret at the gossip of the starlings, And shared a conversation with the housefly in my bed. Once I heard and answered all the questions of the crickets, And joined the crying of each falling dying flake of snow, Once I spoke the language of the flowers… How did it go? How did it go? '