Wednesday, October 07, 2015

`Rising in Joy Over Wolds Unwittingly Weave'

One of the librarians I know was already out the front door, shielding a black bird flopping on the granite. Two more were nearby and another was around the corner on the sidewalk. They were starlings. I had just missed them flying into the library’s heavy glass doors. The one closest to me was the most severely injured, and I picked it up and smeared my hand with blood. The front of its left wing nearest the body, the part called the “wrist,” was torn and bleeding. The others were hopping away and soon flew off. The one in my hands wasn’t going anywhere, and feebly pecked at my fingers. He would probably end up as cat food, but I carried him around the corner and tucked him away behind the shrubs. The librarian had tears in her eyes and taught me the Spanish word for starling: estornino.

Blame the bloody collision on Shakespeare and one of his crackpot admirers. In fulfillment of his dream to introduce to the United States every bird species cited in the plays, the German-born Eugene Schieffelin released sixty starlings into Central Park on March 6, 1890. Schieffelin had already tried nightingales and skylarks, without success. Starlings, a strictly Old World native, show up only once in Shakespeare, in Henry IV Part I, where Hotspur says:

“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but `Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.”

In the New World, starlings proved an immigrant success story. One hundred twenty-five years later, they number an estimated 200 million, the human population of the U.S. in 1967. A few days after the birds crashed into the library, I found a photo gallery, “The Murmurations of Starlings.” The rare word is a collective noun, as in a walk of snipes. A gathering of starlings might also be called a chattering, a clattering, a cloud or a congregation. I prefer murmuration for the sheer weighty ridiculousness of it. The OED’s first definition, the sense used by Chaucer, has nothing to do with birds: “the action of murmuring; the continuous utterance of low, barely audible sounds; complaining, grumbling.” In other words, the sound of the Internet. The dictionary categorizes this sense as “now chiefly literary.” Louis MacNeice uses it memorably in the first stanza of the title poem in Plant and Phantom (1941):

“Man: a flutter of pages,
Leaves in the Sibyl’s cave,
Shadow changing from dawn to twilight,
Murmuration of corn in the wind,
A shaking of hands with hallucinations,
Hobnobbing with ghosts, a pump of blood,
Mirage, a spider dangling
Over chaos and man a chaos.”

The next definition is bird-specific: “a flock (of starlings); spec. (in later use) a large gathering of starlings creating intricate patterns in flight.” It first shows up in the fifteenth century and was resuscitated by Auden in “Prologue” (Look, Stranger!, 1936):

“There in the ring where name and image meet,
Inspire them with such a longing as will make his thought
Alive like patterns a murmuration of starlings
Rising in joy over wolds unwittingly weave.”

“Wolds” is not a typo for “worlds.” It’s very English and can mean wooded land, open land or a hill. The most recent citation for any of these usages is 1905. It's a shame the library starlings were without a wold.


Dave Lull said...


Nige said...

Murmuration is lovely, but strangely undescriptive, don't you think? The last thing starlings do is murmur; they seem to me to chunter. The collective noun for thrushes - a mutation - would fit starlings better, when they take to the air in those wonderful aerobatic displays before settling down to roost. By the way, there's another collective for snipe - a wisp. But that again would fit the aerial starling better...