Western Morning News
Starlings are not exactly birds that murmur
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.