Monday, 1 February 2010

A roar of Starlings

On these dark January evenings I can hear them. From a distance they deliver a familiar but not quite identifiable sound. It is a sound that shifts and turns, taking different forms and stirring a multitude of memories: the sound of rain on stony ground or the quiet babbling chatter of a summer brook. As I get nearer to the source, higher pitch notes can be heard and the individual components of this urban soundscape begin to disentangle themselves. Finally, just 30 or so metres away from the dark outlines of three tall conifers, silhouetted against the harsh orange glow of the streetlights, I can make out the sharp chattering notes of individual roosting Starlings.

It is an amazing sound, several thousand conversations taking place at the same time. These are the same birds that a few hours earlier would have been whirling like some giant super-organism, pulsing in waves across the dusk. The birds will settle down and the noise will diminish as night deepens and other components of an urban soundscape come to the fore.

I’m up before dawn, part of my routine, and I can hear the Starlings stirring. It is not the cacophony of dusk and I rather suspect that some of these Starlings are early risers, while others slumber. By the time that I am back from walking the dogs, the Starlings are properly awake and soon they will be away. I look forward to this moment when they launch themselves into the day; an eruption of tiny black forms that lasts for just a few brief seconds. This is not the aerial ballet of dusk; these birds must disperse to feed, replacing overnight losses as quickly as possible.

On some mornings I am in the garden with the chickens when the Starlings depart, providing me with a front row seat in what, to me, is a marvellous spectacle. While the evening performance is an almost purely visual spectacle, this early morning show is predominantly aural. Most of the Starlings emerge together, the blur of wings powering the birds up into the air and away from their overnight roost. It is this that delivers a strong pulse of sound, like the drawn out roar of a wave that claws against the shingle as it is pulled back seawards. The exact shape of the sound is determined by the direction that the birds take as they leave the roost and pass overhead. It is when they pass directly over me that the sound is at its most intense. Such loud and imposing sounds are unusual in the context of other creatures but it is reassuring to hear one, such as this, which drowns out the traffic.

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