Starlings and the value of public land

On a recent December afternoon, I cycled out into the countryside on frost-covered lanes in search of the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris). I knew the species mostly as a very ordinary bird, found commonly in urban environments in the United States after its introduction from Europe for reasons of poetry. For a non-birder, it had always been a species that did not merit much additional thought.

That all changed on this afternoon in England, when I was lucky enough to see some far more interesting starling behavior. Outside of city parks, starlings come together in communal roosts. In the right wetlands, at the right time of day, these birds come together, flying in large undulating groups. Perhaps the behavior exists to search carefully for the right landing spot while also avoiding predators like the birds seen in the first photograph.

I arrived about an hour before sunset at the Otmoor marshlands. At first, only a few starlings crossed in groups – but as the light began to change in color, small groups became larger ones. Within a few short minutes, there were tens of thousands of birds overhead. These murmurations had form, but were formless too, at once packed like tight spheres, then spread out into long winding filaments, before coming back together once again.

This was more birds in one place than I had ever seen before. It reminded me of a passage from John Audubon’s Birds of America, written about a different species, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius):

In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.

Reading that passage many years ago, I found it hard to conceive of a density of birds sufficient to blot out the sun, but finally could imagine what Audubon’s experience was like. It was magical and transfixing to see so much life swirling overhead, dancing in the pale winter light.

The passenger pigeon is now extinct, perhaps a victim of widespread hunting and habitat loss, while the starling has successfully invaded several continents and is now commonly considered an agricultural pest species. It is unlikely to disappear, and instead may continue to inspire wonder in many others as it did for me. I hope it will – this experience wholly changed my view of the ecology and behavior of this species, as well as my interest in it.

Cycling back home in the dark, I thought more about the importance of this kind of wonder in public and private life. This population of birds was supported only because of the existence of a large British land reserve, in an area that would otherwise imaginably be put to use for agriculture or housing developments. And on this nature reserve, on an afternoon with below-freezing weather, there were hundreds of British families out only to watch these birds fly above the reeds. It gave me great contentment to imagine this as a productive and enjoyable way to pass a day for so many people, and to think about it as an experience uniting people across political divides.

My own country, the United States, is being torn apart by political divisions that might be helped by these kinds of experiences. We may soon see a wall on our southern border that will fragment animal populations and human families alike, the further extension of oil pipelines through the heart of several nations, and the sale of protected public lands for profit and development. We need more of this magic and wonder, which can bring people together and can help us all fight for a brighter and healthier future. As we fight to defend the changes that are coming, it is worth remembering the environments we are defending, and how inspirational and restorative they can be – to all people.

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