Is there a more beautiful compound in the English language than birdsong? The word is itself intoxicating and just saying it aloud makes me want to quit my job and travel around the world with a recorder in search of these avian symphonies. Luckily, I found such a performance much closer to home the other day in a Japanese Zelkova on West 88th Street.
Walking from Central Park back home, I could hear the chorus of birds even from down the block. But this was nothing compared to standing beneath the natural amphitheater of its canopy. The branches bowed as twenty birds or more flitted from one to the other, each singing a different part of the composition.
Though no kind of birder at all, it didn’t take me long to research what kind of song this was: starling.
As it turns out, the starlings of New York have a bit of an ignominious past, through no fault of their own of course. The story begins with Eugene Schieffelin, a lover of zoology and literature, whose passion in life was introducing the birds of Shakespeare to North America. As romantic as this sounds, it had its draw backs. After all, these birds were non-indigenous, invasive even, and often upset fragile ecosystems.
Schieffelin’s first foray into avian acclimatization was also his most successful, or disastrous depending on how you look at it. In 1890, he released 60 starlings into Central Park. Since then, these birds have swelled to 200 million (with an M) that inhabit an area stretching from Alaska to Central America. Few were happy about this introduction. Scientific American called these birds a “menace” while the Audubon Society considers them a “pest.”
But while starlings devour millions of dollars in crops every year, there is also something undeniably magical about these birds.
Starlings have a unique way of flocking called murmuration.
By taking cues from the seven birds closest to them, starlings are able to form complicated patterns that at times appear to be isolated waves of liquid reifying otherwise invisible air currents.
Having seen more than one massive murmuration, I noticed from a distance they resemble something else entirely: Dragons.
While I have no proof or evidence of any kind corroborating my theory, I do find it interesting that starlings are indigenous to Europe, Mesopotamia, and Asia. In all of these cultures dragons figured prominently at various times and history has no explanation for what these mythical creatures were based on.
Just a thought.