Radiolab

Navigate
Return Home

Murmuration

Monday, September 17, 2012 - 01:30 PM

Every now and then, there’s a visual that just blows audio out of the water. And with Emergence on the airwaves this week, this one in particular is on my mind.

It’s a video of starlings, hundreds of them, flying as one. An event which happens to be called a murmuration.

Maybe you’ve seen this video before. It’s been making the rounds. I’m trying to put my finger on what makes it so wonderful. Is it the birds’ changeability? How they appear first like a gnat cloud, then a blanket, then a sea anemone opening and closing in the sky? Is it the music? How close they fly to the camera?

I think it’s what happens at moment 01:45. When the girl (Sophie Windsor Clive) basically drops her paddle and stares at the camera wordlessly.

That giddy look of disbelief is an event that’s perhaps even harder to capture than the murmuration itself: human awe. The real stuff. Quick and simple. It’s that feeling that nature writing so often butchers by over-inflating the wonder, gilding it with too many adjectives. In desperately trying to recreate that rush, that swell through the body, it's easy for a writer to destroy it. And here. Well. In this video, we get Sophie's goofy stare. A snort of laughter.

And there it is.

BUT.

Heh, heh. BUT.

The longer I sit with it, the more I find myself wondering… why the laugh? Is there some reason that birds unfolding through the sky undams a rush in so many of us? Is it pure hypnotic joy? The thrill of being overwhelmed numerically? The strangeness of watching a well-choreographed event that you know isn’t choreographed?

In some ways, I know this question is unanswerable. That it's different for everyone and blah blah blah.* But... I came across a document recently that offers a pretty compelling explanation. It's a poem called “Starlings in Winter” by Mary Oliver.

I didn't use to like poetry. But moments like the hard edge of grief in this particular poem make me start to. Oliver is somehow able to put words to that swell -- from the Ah on high to the boots down low -- and I don’t know quite how she does it, but I leave her poem having experienced a rush in miniature, that same kind that happens in nature, that can remind even the most empty shell it has within it a capacity for joy.


*The filmmakers-- Sophie and Liberty -- think that look of awe at the end has a lot to do with the video's success (as well as the birds' kindly invitation to let the women be a part of their rolling flighted fun that day). They watched the video skyrocket from 400 views to over a million in 2 days, and then experienced a flood of emails from complete strangers. To their surprise, a large portion of those emails, in addition to sharing stories of their own experiences being moved in nature, extended invitations to the women to come stay with them. Sophie and Liberty are now thinking they'll do it: visit these people on a "mega road trip of discovery" to see what it is that really binds people together, in a feature film documentary called, "Come Stay with Me."

A few more links:

An artist puts florescent-colored geometric order to the flock.

Venice spray paints its pigeons.

And my fave: a website that lists all the names for groups of animals. So starlings get the poetically gentle, “murmuration.” Storks? A “mustering.” Larks? An “exaltation!” And on, and on, and on. Enjoy.

Tags:

More in:

Comments [8]

Alan Steele from Vina del Mar, Chile

John Updike wrote a splendid poem about a murmurration experience he had. It was titled "The Great Scarf of Birds".
here is the text: Playing golf on Cape Ann in October
I saw something to remember.
Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.
As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron filings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock
One will moved above the trees
the liquid and hesitant drift.
Come nearer, it became less marvelous,
more legible, and merely huge.
“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.
The rise of the fairway above us was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad
but grass.
And as
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.
Long had it been since my heart
had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great
scarf

Oct. 25 2012 02:42 PM
Wil Davis from Nausea, New Hampster

Great video, and very impressive, but I think it could stand just as well on its own without the wretched music! Why oh why do editors remain convinced that they can improve it by adding some dreadful whoosh whoosh, boom, boom, thud thud garbiage thinking they're creating something better than the original! If the film is good enough, surely it's good enough to stand on its own without supports of crutches! Great video! Thanks for sharing! - Wil Davis

Oct. 17 2012 10:08 PM

Incredible. Nature bringing us gifts like these, little glimpses into the untouchable beauty that is continually surrounding our lives... Nothing is more pure and humbling. Your article is stellar LuLu. Thank you for putting together the connecting layers. It will be shared with many :).

Oct. 05 2012 01:41 PM
NouKa

I believe the "awe" in this video is the realization that she witnessed something magical and was amongst the Murmuring. The feeling of how insignificant humans are in relation to mother earth yet how deeply connected we are to it at the same time.

Oct. 05 2012 10:36 AM
Kimberly from Livingston, MT

All I can think is, "I hope this video never ends." Absolutely wonderful. Thank you for sharing and what a terrific discussion about the idea of awe.

Oct. 04 2012 12:00 AM
Liz from Chicago

I think the beauty comes from watching the birds seem to take a form that doesn't look anything like how we normally imagine bird flight. The mass of them together, swooping and undulating, looks like some other form or material - like a sine or sonar wave materializing in the real world out of thin air. The fact that these birds, in their natural groupings of flight, come together geometrically in a way that reflects other phenomenon in the physical world kind of speaks to the unity of all nature.

Sep. 28 2012 06:12 PM
Shashi

Isn't Murmuration same as Japanese "yugen"? I think "yugen" is broader and covers even simpler beauties that can rise inner ecstasy.

Sep. 25 2012 11:36 PM
Bryan from The unfashionable western spiral of the Milky Way galaxy

That's a beautiful video. Is there a version available that doesn't have the music dubbed over it?

Sep. 24 2012 11:51 AM

Leave a Comment

Register for your own account so you can vote on comments, save your favorites, and more. Learn more.
Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief.
Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. Names are displayed with all comments. We reserve the right to edit any comments posted on this site. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting. By leaving a comment, you agree to New York Public Radio's Privacy Policy and Terms Of Use.

Supported by

Feeds