I heard a whisper on the wind today. A whisper so loud that it was really a shout. This wind called itself gale. It’s all a matter of degree and miles per hour. No doubt somewhere on the other side of the world a butterfly flapped its wings and we felt the tsunami of fast moving air today that it created. Like a runaway train its speed grew and with it its strength. The flags and banners of reeds and leaves flapped madly and smaller trees bent like blades of grass before the onslaught.
The sky was a patchwork of grey cloud over a pale blue backdrop. The late afternoon light sucked the aquamarine of an hour earlier from it. In the west the sun, the colour of a Clouded Yellow, sent wan shafts through the gaps in the clouds. Dusty sticks to light the distant ground beneath them.
The audience sat waiting by the scrape. The rond stretched to infinity in the fading light. There was little colour left. A noisy gaggle of ducks, mostly Mallard and a few Teal, a few Coots too, warmed up the audience with their antics, like circus clowns. A few Rooks and Jackdaws slid quickly by on the wind, calling to each other, hastening to their own performance a mile away.
Suddenly, the tension in the air was palpable as the vanguard arrived. Quickly and quietly a group of maybe 7 Starlings rushed in from the west and swooped and tore around the edge of the reedbed. Further over, at the edge of our visible universe, a larger group homed in, as nebulous as smoke, like burnt black ashes from a bonfire. They merged with the first group and swirled around. As if they were arriving from another dimension, more and more birds seemed to materialize from thin air and joined the fast growing throng. They moved as if they were a single entity and moved this way and that, changing direction in a moment, as one. Sometimes the birds at the front rose up and looped down into the mass behind. It was like watching an invisible giant folding dough. Waves or particles? There was a great fluidity yet an underlying structure in their seemingly choreographed aerobatics.
Apparently it is all to do with a phenomenon called “scale free correlation”. When one bird changes its direction or speed, each of the other birds does so, simultaneously. It seems Starlings co-ordinate their speed and direction with the seven nearest birds. This is amplified across the flock like a supersonic game of pass the parcel. How they do this is, of course, a mystery. Perhaps seven is their lucky number.
On the edge of this wetland area two Marsh harriers banked and hung on the air. Perhaps they were salivating at the sight of so much protein close by yet as impossible to grasp as grains of sand slipping through fingers. The dead tree by the scrape held an observer. A Sparrowhawk perched on a branch, huddled close to the trunk. The chance of a takeaway was too much temptation and it launched into the air and headed on stiff wingbeats toward the seething mass. The birds, now numbering in their thousands, surged this way and that and the Sparrowhawk, as if bewildered, confused and maybe hypnotised by the unfathomable numbers, disappeared out of sight below the tops of the reeds.
The audience were silent. This was shock and awe. As the coming together of these beautiful birds reached its climax the sound of the combined thousands of wings hushed the wind. It was a soft sound but filled the air. Now I know why they call this a murmuration. That is exactly the sound they make: a murmur.
As the light grew dimmer as the sun slipped below the horizon, in a last flourish they slipped and slid through the air, as one, like a transparent snake before diving into the reedbed, their roost for tonight and every night after. The Marsh Harriers approached closer and a few hundred birds rose nervously before returning to the reeds.
The wind resumed its narrative and the world of darkness and sleep succeeded to the throne vacated by daylight.