Out of nowhere, a multitude of birds emerges and dances as one—forming abstract, morphing black ribbons and shapes against the sunset. As their wings beat together, they emit the sounds of waves crashing against a shore, never still, perpetually connected. For a second, they seem to fade away into a thin line, but then a new movement in their symphony sweeps in (fortissimo!) and the birds soar and dive. Just like that, I am mesmerized, and a “murmuration of starlings is stuck in my head.”

When I first learned about the natural phenomena of starling murmurations from a song by the band Johnnyswim, I was overwhelmed with questions, and longing lodged within the awe. How and why did these birds glide in such flawless patterns as a group? What did the force of that unity feel like?

Many animal species flock together, but starlings, humble and social songbirds found across the world, are the only airborne creatures who can collectively stir and swoop. Black with subtle metallic adornments, they stay together to find warmth and food, especially during the winter. As the sun melts into oranges and pinks, they may suddenly take flight together, spiraling to fend off predators and to inspect shelter options for the night.

While starlings’ congregations can number in the tens of thousands, scientists believe that each bird only pays attention to six or seven neighbors in order to avoid bumping into others. As they undulate at speeds of over ninety mph, their cloud sends notifications of predator danger or opportunity from one end of the flock to another. Someone (the flock council? the matriarch?) selects a suitable roosting site and within seconds, the air clears as the starlings settle under piers, within reeds, or in building overhangs.

I can’t help but think that starlings’ murmurations hold lessons for us: on surviving a powerful enemy through unity, on finding balance within a group, and on aligning with grace through chaos. And though we may struggle to be as harmonious as the birds, with rapt attention, I encounter memories with that same surprising, affectionate oneness:

  • When I woke up early enough to make it to the outdoor farmers’ market, and circled around the covered wooden stalls cascading with beans, breads, and mangoes. My initial rushed pace slowed to match the crowd that somehow rarely bumped into each other. The mechanics of how this produce and dairy make it here Saturday after Saturday were beyond me and led me to an appreciative peace.
  • Or when the night had already blanketed us, and we descended down winding mountain roads into the city, a terrestrial constellation of lights, and I was overwhelmed by how many lives are gathered in one place, how little I knew of the illuminated edges, and a love for this restless, pulsating city.
  • And even at a recent concert, my first one in years, when the musicians declared, “Our goal is not simply community, but communion,” and as a result the line between audience and performer dissolved. When I was amazed that we all knew the lyrics with gusto and how the energy from that night poured out into abundant favor for strangers.

“That murmuration of starlings is stuck in my head” because I am learning to trust Toni Morrison’s words that despite the uncertainty and noise, “if you surrender to the air, you can ride it.”

1 Comment

  1. Alex Johnson

    Comfort, every month I am delighted to discover a new corner of this wonderful world via your posts. Thank you for the time and effort and delight that you imbue in your writing

    Reply

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