Witnessing the murmuration of starlings is unforgettable. A good number of writers have described the experience. Doubtless anxious to avoid clichés, most diligently trawled through a Thesaurus for alternatives to describe the swirling, unwinding, and coiling motion.
The best account of starling murmurations I have read is by Italo Calvino in his wonderful book ‘Mr Palomar’, where he describes the birds gathering and dispersing over Rome. But who was the first to attempt a description? I believe it could be Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Notebooks. Travelling by stage coach to London in 1799, he found himself mesmerised by the sight of starlings flocking over a nearby field. He begins by observing the sky, creating a word description of such meticulous precision that it anticipates the rapidly sketched atmospheric cloud studies of John Constable in the 1820s:
‘November 27th – a most interesting morning. 1799. Awoke from one of my painful Coach-Sleeps, in the Coach to London. It was a rich Orange Sky like that of a winter Evening save that the fleecy dark blue Clouds that rippled above it, shewed it to be morning – these soon became a glowing Brass Colour, brassy Fleeces, wool packs in shape / rising high up into the Sky. The Sun at length rose upon the flat Plain, like a Hill of Fire in the distance, rose wholly, & in the water that flooded part of the Flat a deep column of Light. – But as the coach went on, a Hill rose, and intercepted the Sun – and the Sun in a few minutes rose over it, a compleat 2nd rising, thro’ other clouds and with a different Glory.’
He goes on to describe the murmuration that followed:
‘Soon after this I saw Starlings in vast Flights, borne along like smoke, mist – like a body unindued with voluntary Power / – now it shaped itself into a circular area, inclined – now they formed a Square – now a Globe – now from complete orb into an Ellipse – then oblongated into a Balloon with the Car suspended, now a concave Semicircle; still expanding, or contracting, thinning or condensing, now glimmering and shivering, now thickening, deepening, blackening!’
This is not the surgical account of a scientist or natural historian. Coleridge is no dispassionate witness. If that fastidious observer of the natural world Gilbert White had attempted a description you could almost hear him announcing, ‘I am now going to describe the murmuration of the starling species. I have studied it closely on a representative number of occasions and this is an accurate summation of what I saw’.
But Coleridge is a poet, and we can imagine him being drawn out of his seat in the coach before ascending into the sky to participate in the throng. It is an account in real time, and I don’t think anyone else was writing like this in 1799. It is an extraordinary achievement, and anticipates Gerard Manley Hopkins sixty years later.
And here he is again just five years later, describing the flight of linnets.
Friday Evening, Jan[uary] 20,1804.
Observed in the garden of Eaton House the flight of the Brown Linnets, a large flock of whom I had repeatedly disturbed by my foot-fall as I walked by the thicket. / 1. Twinkling of wings. 2. Heavy & swanlike rise & fall, yet so that while one was rising, another was falling – & so 4. Their sweet straight onward motion / they swam on, not with speed or haste, much less hurry, but with easy natural Swiftness – & then [a] graceful wheel round one half of a circle or more, & then cut straight the diameter of it – 4. their change of position among themselves / right to left, hindw[ard] to the front, vanguard to the rear – these four motions all at once in one beautiful Whole, like a Machine –
These diary entries, and a plethora of similarly extraordinary examples, are what make Coleridge so outstanding as both observer and writer. It is regrettable that his reputation with the general reader rests on just a dozen or so (admittedly remarkable) poems.
Photograph courtesy of Adam, Creative Commons