A murmuration of starlings

starlingA lone starling appeared on our deck on Monday. He first perched on the flat board railing, his purple head gleaming in the sun. Then he flew to the snow-covered floor boards and stared at us with striking yellow-ringed eyes.

We see lots of cardinals, juncos, finches, and other winter birds at our feeders. But this was the first starling to ever visit and we’d never before seen one by itself. They usually congregate in gregarious groups.

This singular starling took a wobbling step toward the seed, one foot curled into an almost useless ball. We wondered if he’d been cast from his group due to his deformity.

Because I’d recently seen this video posted on Facebook, I knew that a group of starlings was called a murmuration. Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith were canoeing when they caught this murmuration’s acrobatic antics.

There are many other videos of starling murmurations, including this well-done one over Gretna Green in southern Scotland.

Curiosity fuels a writer’s creativity. I wondered how a huge group of raucous starlings had ever come to be called a murmuration. Some websites speculated on the sound made by thousands of whispering wings, or the birds’ distant calls. The word comes from Medieval Latin murmuratio and may have been in use since the 14th century. Nancy Friedman cites its attribution as mid-15th century on her website.

I also knew that a group of crows is called a murder. Perhaps for the feeling noisy crows create in a homeowner’s heart when they crowd trees surrounding the house.

If starlings are called a murmuration and crows are called a murder, what are other groups of birds or animals called? This site lists many fascinating names, including the image-evoking “rhumba of rattlesnakes.” Can’t you just imagine rattlesnakes swaying their heads and rattling their tales to Cuban music?

Kyle Hill’s scientific blog features an interesting table of names listed in group categories. He writes:

I absolutely love the Victorian flair. An exaltation of larks? A shiver of sharks? Fantastic.

What writer wouldn’t want to incorporate one of those phrases into a novel at a particularly appropriate moment?

As I mentioned earlier, curiosity fuels creativity. It also flows into that bane of the writer’s existence: procrastination. You can soon spend a lot of time surfing the net for creature group names and viewing murmuration videos.

But now you and I will find the right term if we ever want to write about a scurry of squirrels or a prickle of porcupines, a romp of otters or a bloat of hippos, a tower of giraffes or a smack of jellyfish, a convocation of eagles or a pitying of turtle doves.

All because a lone starling with a purple head and curled foot stared at me with yellow-ringed eyes.


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