Wednesday 30 January 2013

A Murmuration of Starlings

On and around a condemned building in the Rue de l'Orillon, a group of starlings is currently putting on a performance each evening at dusk. But for how long?

Around an hour before sundown they begin to gather. Not in trees or on rooftops but instead on the metallic branches of an giant television antenna. A clandestine and somewhat dangerous-looking installation, it nevertheless provides the perfect look-out spot across the city.

They arrive in groups of 15-20 birds, feral packs that have spent the day scavanging across different parts of the city. The birds jostle for position on the arial, before setting out on their mass pre-bedtime swooping, twisting display.

There are perhaps around 200 birds in this group, and although the spectacle is not the "thickening, deepening and blackening" show that the poet Samuel Coleridge once observed, it is nevertheless impressive in this urban setting.

In more rural locations, groups of starlings - known as a murmuration - can regularly include several thousand birds, creating incredible shapes in the sky. Quite why or how they do this is not known, although it is a phenomena that has long been researched by biologists, and also more recently by physicists, aeronautical engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists.

Looking up at these birds, it is pleasing to think that there is something mysterious happening in the skies above this most ordered and cartesian of cities.

These group flights serve a social purpose, but like people in a city, there is surely also an element of 'safety in numbers'. Even in Paris there are aerial predators - notably Peregrine falcons, and a flock is more difficult to attack than an individual bird. It is also possible that they are warming themselves up before bedding down for the night.

The grace and beauty of this group activity is all the more surprising when we consider the bird as an individual. The starling is an ordinary looking bird, with greasy oil-spill plumage, but it is also the most streetwise of birds, and entirely suited to city life.

Most astonishing of all is the bird's power of imitation. To protect territory or to ward off predators, the starling can change its voice, imitating the songs of other birds, or even telephones and other electrical equipment. What's more, they often seem to do it for fun! The starling is the city spiv, a genial con-artist.

Although some birds will stay in Paris year-round, most will head off to breeding grounds, generally in the north and east of Europe. These flocks, and the accompanying aerial displays, start forming around November but when this particular group gets back together again later this year, their 'tree' will have gone. 

The building housed migrants too, mostly families from Africa, the tree-like antenna bringing them images from countries far away. It stands empty, bricked up, and demolition is scheduled to begin shortly. The residents have been rehoused, but has anyone thought of the starlings*?

*An RSPB survey in the UK found that starling numbers in the country had declined by nearly 70% in recent years.


Gavin said...

I always knew you would end up doing a twitchers blog! Very interesting account! Wasn't there somewhere in Bristol where we used to see them swarming at dusk?

gee said...

resturants cheapo near the stations?

Anonymous said...

I live near the Porte Maillot and I see the same at the end of a sunny day.

How can I add a photo to my post?

Adam said...

Gavin: You can take the person out of the YOC, but not the YOC out of the person! Yes, there was defintely a big pack in Bristol back in the days. I seem to remember that they all went to sleep under a long bridge. I'm not sure where these ones go to bed.

Adam said...

Anonymous: Do you mean a photo in the comments? You'd have to find somewhere to host the picture (Flickr?), then post the URL of that photo here.

redheadwithglasses said...

Great photos of the birds on the wire and the commentary!

Anonymous said...

They also congregate on winter evenings in the garden at the BnF. Great post - reminds me of a classic murmuration clip:

Brian said...

A murmuration of starlings! That's kinda funny. Nice pic and concept though.

Meanwhile, do please take a look at my new blog to support the book French Attitude 101: one hundred and one attributes of Frenchship.

Bronwyn said...

Lovely! Snap:

My son noticed them as we were walking home from school.

Love your blog!
Best wishes, Bronwyn

Adam said...

Bronwyn: we must be neighbours!
I noticed yesterday that the starlings seem to have moved to a crane nearby - which is even higher in the sky! I also found online the building that will replace the one under this aerial.

Bronwyn said...

I'm further up the hill, but my son's school is in that neighbourhood. I'm sorry about that building -- I was hoping that they'd rehabilitate the other hotel. O well.
Cheers for the good work!

Invisible Lyon said...

A flock of starlings did exactly this here in Lyon for a few weeks this autumn, though given that there were not hundreds but thousands of them, the combined effect was less of a murmuration than a full-blown Hitchcock. It was really bizarre, and so regular that you could almost set your watch by it: every afternoon at about 3.45, they would come swooping in from various directions - our flat being on the third floor overlooking the adjacent buildings, we got a grandstand view of the approaching black clouds - only to land in half a dozen or trees directly outside our house, where they chatted almost deafeningly (and rained shit on the cars unfortunate enough to be parked below) for three-quarters of an hour before taking off almost in unison just as suddenly.

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