Western Morning News

Starlings are not exactly birds that murmur

- CHARLIE ELDER charles.elder@reachplc.com

THIS time of year is known for great avian aerial displays as vast fizzing flocks of starlings assemble to roost.

Much like a pride of lions and a herd of cattle, the collective noun for starlings is a murmuratio­n, which also applies to its swirling formations in autumn and winter over reedbeds and woodlands.

The word ‘mumuration’ has its origins in Middle English and describes the act of murmuring – that is making a continuous, low and indistinct sound.

Collective nouns are a strange assortment of idiosyncra­tic terms for groupings, some fairly accurate, that mostly date back to the 15th century and apparently appeared in educationa­l handbooks for the nobility that helped mark them out from the masses. A bit of snobbish linguistic fun it seems.

Some are wonderfull­y evocative, such as a wisp of snipe, a charm of goldfinche­s, a scold of jays, an exultation of skylarks and a conspiracy of ravens, while others are more intriguing, including a kettle of swallows, a prayer of godwits and a museum of waxwings. But, by and large, we tend to keep things simple and call groups of birds a ‘flock’, dispensing with the superfluou­s labels.

However, of all the collective nouns for birds, ‘murmuratio­n’ seems to have captured the imaginatio­n and found its way into familiar usage. I suppose the term ‘flock’ simply doesn’t go far enough in describing the awe-inspiring gatherings of starlings many thousands strong.

To my mind it is not the best term. Close-up the sound of these huge congregati­ons, wings whirring, is more like the whooshing sound of a passing train or rushing of white water rapids or hissing of waves on a gravel beach or roar of wind through the treetops. Not a murmur, of the kind one associates with a polite crowd between tennis sets at Wimbedon.

Sadly starling numbers are in severe decline, and their murmuratio­ns are much diminished. So I was pleased to witness my own minimurmur­ation in the garden yesterday. Well, three individual­s to be precise. Pleased because for some reason I very seldom see starlings in my west Dartmoor garden, so three is quite a gathering.

Readers who regularly get them often consider starlings a pest at bird feeders, being as they can be greedy and bossy. But they are a treat for me – and at this time of year they look smart, freckled with white spots. They also make sounds like no other, delivering a complicate­d mechanical medley of jangling, whistling, wheezing and rattling. Loud in looks, character and calls, they don’t exactly murmur their way through life.

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