The Poets’ Birds ~ Flocks

A true murmuration — the mysteriously coordinated flight of thousands of starlings or other birds — is a wonder to behold. On the other hand, the sights and sounds of smaller migrating flocks stir the soul equally, inviting us to stop, and marvel.

Despite the winding down of our autumn migration season, birds continue to arrive: white ibis threading through clouds; unseen geese or cranes calling to their kind; a sudden upwelling of grackles; kettles of hawks rising into invisibility.

On the day after Christmas, newly arrived sandhill cranes browsed the prairies, while flocks of red-winged blackbirds mixed in apparent comfort with the snow geese feeding in harvested rice fields.

Snow Geese ~ Anser caerulescens

Elsewhere, the constant rising and falling of anonymous dark birds brought to mind a poem published by John Updike in the October 27, 1962 issue of the New Yorker: a reflection on a remarkable phenomenon titled “The Great Scarf of Birds.”

Playing golf on Cape Ann in October
I saw something to remember.
Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.

As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron filings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the trees
the liquid and hesitant drift.
Come nearer, it became less marvellous,
more legible, and merely huge.

“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.
The rise of the fairway above us was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad
but grass.

And as
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.

Long had it been since my heart
had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great
scarf.

Comments always are welcome.

84 thoughts on “The Poets’ Birds ~ Flocks

    1. I always think of Updike as a novelist, but this poem is a useful reminder that his creativity could flourish in other forms. The image of a scarf is perfect, especially that casual toss that comes at the end.

  1. It occurs to me that to a bird, flying must be much the same to them as jogging is to us (only a good deal easier to keep going for distance). It looks so effortless — and the soaring bits are, like roller skating once you’ve gotten up to speed. But it is work — it takes muscles, strength and energy, coordination, all that physical stuff. I suppose if it was your usual mode of locomotion, you wouldn’t think any more of flying across town than you would of getting up and walking across a room.

    The skeins of geese that go honking over always remind me of rowers out on the river in single sculls, but aligned in formation, honking out the stroke.

    1. I spent more time than I’d intended reading about the mechanics of flight last night. That’s what happens when an idle thought comes along, like: why do different birds migrate in different formations? I can’t quite get my mind around the scientific stuff, but it’s clear that size matters; there’s a reason pelicans cruise single file, while starlings travel in groups and your geese travel in vees.

    1. Or vice-versa, perhaps: Updike’s words nicely illustrated by the photos. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with this series — if anything –until I remembered the poem.

  2. I do love watching large flocks of birds. However, I’ve had my fill of hundreds of white cockies screeching above me in the gum trees, and chucking branches down. One day the volume reminded me of Hitchcock…..

    1. I’ve seen enough videos and read enough bloggers’ descriptions of those birds to appreciate your point of view. The closest approximation here may be our laughing gulls during the mating season, with hundreds of birds trying to vocally out-do one another.

  3. I’ve always been facinated how flocks of birds do this, swell and eb, curve around and up, without running into each other resulting in dozens of stunned birds on the ground.

    1. There’s a somewhat lengthy but understandable article here that you might enjoy. In the middle of the article, I found this:

      “However dense a flock appears from the outside, its members are not evenly distributed like points on a grid. Rather, each member has a good deal of space behind and in front. Like drivers on a freeway, starlings don’t appear to mind having neighbors nearby on their sides—or above and below, for that matter—as long as they have open space ahead.

      That makes sense, since the presence of a clear path in the direction of travel minimizes the likelihood of collisions should the birds need to shift their course abruptly… But what’s really nifty about this spatial asymmetry is that the researchers can show that each bird always pays attention to the same number of neighbors, whether they’re closer or farther away.

      How many neighbors is that? Six or seven… Focusing on more than one or two neighbors enables a starling to maneuver quickly when needed. But by limiting to six or seven the number of neighbors it pays attention to, it may avoid cluttering its brain with less reliable, or simply overwhelming, information from birds farther away.”

    1. I’ve seen only a few Mallards and Teal, although I know they’re around, and I’ve yet to see more than a few Northern Shovelers. Even at my feeders, things have been quiet. I’m sure that’s related to our extended warm weather, and the availability of natural food sources.

  4. I’m always amazed by the synchronized show the migrating birds put on, like the Navy’s Blue Angel jets. Lots of nice language in that poem, I admire how neatly “negligently tossed toward a chair” captures a feeling, motion and image. Happy New Year, Linda!

    1. I liked that image, too, especially since I’ve made that same toss innumerable times. Sometimes the scarf (hat, coat, gloves) land, and sometimes they don’t, but it’s a gesture that perfectly captures the apparent casualness of murmurating birds.

      Happy New Year to you, too, Rob! Despite the complexities of the past year, I’m looking forward to the next; I hope it brings you good things aplenty!

    1. Sometimes humans do manage to get along, and it’s wonderful when it happens. With luck, we’ll have a little more getting along and a little less grumpiness and snark in the coming year. Even if a certain virus hangs around for a while longer, there ought to be some opportunities to enjoy life, and I hope plenty of them come your way!

    1. My favorite image in the poem was of the iron filings being moved by a magnet. It’s been decades since I’ve done that, but I could see it immediately, and liked the suggestion of the birds being moved by a similar invisible force. Between the first and last photos of the flock, there were about twenty-five images; that allowed me to pick out different stages of their flight.

      1. The iron filings metaphor resonated with me because I’m reading Steven Pinker’s latest book, Rationality, in which he distinguishes between iron filings that have no way to get past the piece of cardboard that separates them from the magnet they’re attracted to, and Romeo, who finds a way to get to his object of desire, Juliet on her balcony.

    1. It’s such an unusual image, that scarf; Updike did well by it. I’m glad you like the photos, too. They were as unstudied and impulsive as the birds’ flight; they had to be — those birds weren’t about to pose! Happy New Year to you and yours; here’s to more and more Fri-yays in 2022!

  5. I have only seen the full murmuration in person once, but each year I get wonderful photos posted to the Birds and Wildlife group of the spectacle.

    I agree with you, flocks of other birds arriving, or departing, can be as equally enthralling, and nothing says autumn as much as the honking of geese as they fly overhead.

    I wish you a very Happy New Year, Linda, and a great 2022.

    1. Lucky you, to have seen a full murmuration! I’ve seen even larger migrating flocks, but they either perform their acrobatics elsewhere or are too goal-oriented for the sort of marvelous performances that show up in your group or on nature shows.

      I love the sound of geese, but it’s becoming more rare here; their flight paths have changed as the fields they like to rest and feed in have changed. On the other hand, the call of the osprey is a dependable sound of a changing season. It’s thrilling to hear the first ones; they’re usually so high they can’t be seen, but that call does carry.

      Obviously, everyone is hoping for a better year in 2022, but there have been bright spots in this one, despite it all. Here’s to health and happiness in the New Year — in only an hour, it will have arrived for you!

  6. Thank you for introducing me to this Updike poem, which I did not know. Marvelous, as were your photographs which so richly illustrated it! Happy New Year to you Linda, and best in 2022!!

    1. It’s possible that you don’t know another Updike poem that I find deeply appealing. It’s titled “Planting Trees, . Given your affection for trees and your own use of them as metaphor in your poetry, you may enjoy it.

      Here’s to a more poetic and less prosaic year for us all!

  7. This post reminded me of one of the greatest moments of delight I ever shared with my niece Emily. A few years back we were walking through the orchard on a chilly afternoon in late December. Suddenly we heard the beating of many wings as a murmur of starlings flew past us and her eyes widened as she froze in place. They passed just over us, and disappeared as a moving black cloud into the distance. We didn’t speak for a bit, and then she said, “Wow, that was AMAZING!”

    We are fortunate to see a murmuring of starlings often this time of year. I think it’s because they are seen feeding on our wild native plants in the river bottom. Whatever draws them, I find it breathtaking to observe. Updike’s prose recreates the beauty of experiencing such a moment.

    1. Isn’t it amazing, how certain experiences like that remain in memory? And it’s not the same kind of remembering as knowing where the car keys are, or getting ourselves to an appointment on time. It’s a memory that involves all the senses — and that makes a past experience present again. I’m so glad you were able to share such an experience with Emily — here’s to many more such magical moments in the coming year!

  8. When I look at your first picture, I think I really need to inform myself about the difference between Sandhill and Whooping Cranes.
    A Happy New Year to you,
    Pit

    1. I took the first step for you, and labeled that first photo as what it is: snow geese! I’d neglected to do that before posting, so you’re not the only one who read the text and assumed they were the cranes rather than the geese. In any event, this post has a few of my best photos of sandhills. They’re smaller than the whooping cranes, are gray rather than white, and have that pouffy bunch of feathers on their rear ends.

      I’d really love to get to Aransas to see the cranes this year. Maybe yes, maybe no. I hope the year’s kinder to you and Mary — and I especially hope that Mary is able to begin fully enjoying your travels in 2022. There’s still a lot for you two to see!

  9. I love seeing a murmuration of birds. It never fails to take my breath away. And all those cranes! Oh, my. Your photos are the perfect accompaniment for this wonderful poem.

    My birds are scarfing down their seed. Do they know we are due for six inches of snow tomorrow? I wouldn’t doubt it!

    All good wishes for a safe, lovely and very happy new year!

    1. I don’t know about your birds, but my squirrels certainly are stuffing their little cheeks and tummies ahead of tomorrow night’s cold front. This time, it’s for real — a fifty degree drop is coming! No ice or snow, but I’ll step outside, breathe in the cold air, and think of you. That ought to take my breath away!

      I hope your celebrations tonight are real celebrations, shared with Rick. And I share your wish for a happier New Year; you certainly deserve it!

  10. I guess it’s obvious, but I’ve always thought the swoop of masses of birds looks like a scarf in the wind: “…ascended as a lady’s scarf,”!

    All the best to you for 2022–thank you for your wonderful posts and photos–I look forward to more!

    1. That’s really neat, Tina; you and Updike, looking at the world in the same way.

      I thought of you this afternoon when I saw something equally impressive — a Monarch nectaring on some blooming oleander flowers. I hope it dined well, given what’s on the way weather-wise. When I saw that we’re under a freeze watch for Sunday night, I checked your forecast. Oh, my! I hope your new babies are bedded down nicely!

  11. Lots of perfect turns of phrase in that poem. I had forgotten Updike wrote poetry–and the one on planting trees is also lovely. I need to get myself to some nearby wetlands soon.

    1. He’s so well known for his novels the poetry can get a bit lost. I used to read the New Yorker regularly; that’s where I came to know his poems. As with most prolific writers, not all of his work appeals to me, but there are some real gems that can be found with a willingness to explore: not unlike a wetland. Get thee hence!

  12. Wow, that’s a LOT of birds! From a distance, they look more like a locust swarm, and that would simply terrify me. Great poem, though. Happy New Year, Linda!

    1. I’ve read accounts of grasshoppers and locusts forming great clouds like this; it would be unnerving, wouldn’t it? I can deal with a few of those critters at a time now, but like you, I’d not be pleased to run into a swarm. Birds are ever so much better.

      Here’s hoping the coming year is a better one, too. Give Monkey an extra scritch or two for me, and enjoy the first day of the New Year. Then, we can start working on the second day, and the third, and…

  13. Wonderful poem and photos, Linda. When I was in Germany, I saw many flocks of starlings as they were eager to eat the ripening grapes in the vineyards. One morning I happened to look out of the window and beheld a swarm that must have counted tens of thousands of birds. It was a sight not to be forgotten.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed them, Tanya. We have starlings here, but I never see them in the huge flocks that cause the murmurations. I suspect the birds in the photos above are red-winged blackbirds; the same ones that were mixing with the geese. I do see starlings during the nesting season. They have favorite spots in several marinas where they’ll build nests and raise their families, well protected from the elements and predators. Most people don’t realize what beautiful songs they have; they like to perch on sailboat rigging and sing their hearts out.

      All good wishes for the New Year, both to you and to your fellow Coloradans. It’s been terrible watching the destruction caused by the fires, but if the kindness of people there equals the kindness shown here after hurricanes, the rebuilding will begin sooner rather than later.

      1. Many people in this country dislike starlings because they are a nonnative species. It is ironic that their numbers in Europe have been declining, and they would gladly take them all back. Not only are they beautiful to look at, their vocal skills are amazing and they mimic a whole array of other birds.

        What happened in the Boulder area was horrific and one only hopes that those affected by those horrible fires will get all the help they need as fast as possible.

  14. I especially like the first photograph, as the birds took off, and before they dispersed. I’ve not seen a concentrated group like that. The RWBB won’t return up here until March or so.
    Thanks for your photography and writing in 2021, and best wishes for 2022.

    1. What’s especially interesting is to compare photos like these with the radar returns of birds leaving their roosts in the morning. The phenomenon is the same, except the dispersal on radar isn’t so attractive! Here’s to a new year filled with even more discoveries!

    1. Didn’t he, though? I was surprised to learn that so many of his poems have nature themes in one way or another. This is one of the most creative and apt descriptions of flock behavior I’ve found. Now, when I see a flock, I see them as birds, but also as that Updikian scarf.

  15. Very moving, and your photos replicate his words. I’ve seen birds rise from the earth like that. Who leads, or, “what” leads the flight? is an initial thought, but then, I just look and marvel, forgetting the physics of it all. Great post to start our new year. Best wishes to you for our new year. ~ Jack

    1. It’s a marvelous sight, and like so many marvels in the world, doesn’t require an explanation to be appreciated. Perhaps this will be the year our human ‘flock’ can take flight again, and enjoy the freedom of these birds. One can always hope!

      I have to say I really like the cover of Death at La Osa. The colors perfectly reflect the story’s setting: the combination of turquoise and adobe is one of my favorites, but even if it weren’t, I think it would catch a bookstore browser’s eye. Here’s to your book taking flight in the new year, too!

  16. It’s appropriate that a flock of Juncos were happily working over the ground outside my library window as I read your post, Linda. I counted 30. They all flew away in a small approximation of a murmuration when a Stellar Jay landed in their midst. As we discussed before, I’ve watched murmurations for years in the Sacramento Valley when driving back and forth to Oregon in the fall. I just called them large flocks flying, however, until you introduced me to the word. –Curt

    1. The people who know such things make a distinction between a true murmuration and a flock, but I’m not sure what the dividing line is. Size, I suppose, but also behavior. Our grackles flock in huge numbers during migration, but they don’t do much except fly from one place to another and make noise. There’s nothing graceful about them!

      Is your snow holding? I’m imagining there might be a little seed on that ground to keep the juncos and others happy. We’re about three or four hours from our first blue norther of the year, and excitement is high. I didn’t stay up for the midnight festivities last night, but I just might try and stay up for the frontal passage. We’re currently at 73F, but it’s 10F in Amarillo and 15F in Lubbock. Here it comes!

      1. Snows melting here, Linda, but still hanging in there. It was in the mid-20s F last night. A bit icy. Major rain and snow storm expected tonight. But this time the snow is expected to hit the higher elevations.
        A cup of sunflower seeds can keep a flock of junco’s happy for a couple of hours, it seems. Jays make fast work of it.
        Our juncos were definitely flock like. The signal is scatter, and scatter they do. On occasion right into our window. Not good. –Curt

        1. Ah. I hate when that happens. In my case, it’s usually a dove, and there’s usually a hawk in hot pursuit. If they head for the sliding glass door, the hawk usually will veer off, and if they get stunned, it doesn’t take them long to recover. I finally got smart and started scattering seed for them under the hedges, where they can feed more safely.

          1. Ours are normally stunned as well, Linda, but every once in a while, there is a broken neck. I throw them over the hill with hopes that a fox will find them. – Curt

  17. Just yesterday my father and I watched some of the smaller flocks, some perhaps migratory and others just a daily occurence. A large flock of gulls would suddenly rise from the water and all move in the same direction, likely to a local shopping center. We watched as a small flock of ducks, maybe half a dozen birds, came from the opposite direction to all the others and we wondered are they lost, then watched as they eventually turned around and headed back the way they came. Fascinating to watch!

    1. Our gulls will do that, too. Sometimes they stream by in such large numbers it seems as though there will be no end to them. I suspect that they’ve found a readier source of food than the local waters, but perhaps not. It’s great fun to watch them when the bait fish come in during the summer. Squabble? Oh, my! Why six seagulls try to take a fish from another instead of going after their own — and having greater success — I’ll never know.

      What intrigues me most is the different flight patterns. Ibis and pelicans tend to fly in a line; at least, when they’re not migrating. Smaller birds will bunch, like these. I’ve read that it helps to protect them from predators. Picking a single target from a mass of birds like that wouldn’t be the easiest thing in the world!

  18. That’s just amazing! I was in Florida last January, and saw so many birds flying in the sky above a marshy swamp…I was very impressed, but it was nothing like those photos!

    1. I’ve seen flocks even larger than this one, but it’s always been ‘wrong place, wrong time’ to get a series of photos. It’s easy to see why these flocks show up on radar; they seem almost solid when they first take off. I think bird flight is one of the most stirring sights in nature, whether it’s a few, or many.

    1. Isn’t it a fine poem? It’s always amused me a bit that it starts off in a golf course; it’s a good reminder that any place can be the ‘right’ place to find beauty. There’s just something about bird flight that’s compelling, no matter the size of the flock.

  19. That is a beautiful poem by John Updike. and I enjoyed seeing the murmuration through your lens. I usually see a few when I travel across the valley, but did not pass any this year.

    1. They can be unpredictable, and their appearance seems to depend on which fields have been planted with which crops. Fields that had been left fallow for a couple of years were planted in rice again this year, and I imagine that’s what attracted the geese, sandhill cranes, and other birds into the area. It was pure pleasure to see them all.

  20. If we had not experienced first hand the wonder of the starlings, we wouldn’t understand the power behind “Long had it been since my heart had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great scarf.” INDEED!

    1. It’s true. When experience and reflection are joined, knowledge and appreciation can continue to deepen. Also: it’s a reciprocal relationship. Just as the sight of these birds reminded me of Updike’s poem, reading such a poem can allow us to see natural phenomenon in a new way when we encounter them.

    1. It is the rhythms of nature that often touch us most deeply: the progression of the seasons, waves on a beach, the rising and setting of the sun and moon. Those primordial rhythms are deeply reassuring, especially in a world that seems to need gurus even to teach it to breathe.

  21. I like the photo of the sandhill cranes who seem dignified to me, nothing like the goof brain cardinals we have around here. I also like the idea of a scarf of birds. It seems accurate and poetic in equal measure.

    1. I think you must mean the geese. I was going to add a photo of the sandhill cranes I saw that day, but none of those photos turned out sharp enough to publish. I laughed at your comment about the cardinals. I can’t imagine them as goof-brained. I love their elegance, and their songs. Now I’m wondering if they got a bad rap for feeder-emptying in your yard!

      1. See, this goes to prove just about all birds look the same to me. Cranes, geese? Whatever. As for cardinals they are stupid, will fly into the same window over & over again until the point on the top of their head is askew. Then just sit there and glare into your house as if you are the problem!

        1. Oh — those cardinals! Now that you mention it, I remember one that either fell in love with the one it saw in my car mirror, or saw the reflection as a competitor. I finally had to cover the mirror with a dish towel whenever the car was parked. Why it never went to the other mirror, I can’t say, but at least I kept that one from commiting suicide via my car!

  22. There is nothing on this planet like a murmuration of birds. So glorious. You captured the phenomenon beautifully in this post, Linda — John Updike’s memorable Scarf poem and your photos. What an abundance you came upon, thanks for sharing it.

    1. Sometimes, words and images come together in ways that are wholly unexpected and completely satisfying: as though they were made for one another. That certainly happened here, and your experiences in the wild no doubt brought to mind even more dramatic murmurations that would have come closer to matching Updike’s words. I’m glad you enjoyed this pairing, Jet.

  23. I have never witnessed a murmuration and envy your images. The coordination of huge flocks of starlings is beyond imagination for those of us who can barely walk down a hallway without bumping into a corner with our bare toes.
    As with so many other examples, thanks for introducing me to Updike’s poem. Guess I am not that well read.

    1. I don’t fully understand it, and couldn’t make my way through all of the science, but it seems that there’s some understanding now of how they do it. (The operative word is ‘some,’ of course.) Apparently each bird doesn’t pay attention to the whole flock. Instead, they focus on the seven birds surrounding them, and they maintain the proper amount of empty space up, down, below, and ahead that allows them to maneuver through those great, twisting turns.

      It still seems like magic to me, but on the other hand, I can remember experiences of making my way through large crowds, and it’s kind of the same principle. If you keep aware of where the space is, and follow that space, you can move much more quickly than if you try to just plow straight ahead.

  24. Lifting that great scarf caused the heart to be lifted.

    That is apt, indeed.

    Some of our most significant memories are tied to experiencing large flocks of birds. It is truly one of Nature’s most miraculous events.

    1. There’s certainly a reason that people take the time and spend the money to travel to see the great migrations. It doesn’t even have to be a huge flock to stop me in my tracks. When the White Pelicans return here in the winter, there often will be a hundred or more circling high in the sky: soundless, and so high they hardly can be seen. It’s just magical.

  25. I went to YouTube a few months ago to get an idea of what murmuration was. So glad I did. Totally fascinating. And this poem is outstanding. Now I realize that I have observed it, but on a smaller scale.

    1. The scale hardly matters, does it? The flight of even a smaller flock is heart-lifting, and it’s never really predictable. Every time I see it, I stop, if only for a few seconds, and smile.

    1. You live in the heart of murmuration land. Every time I watch one of the really spectacular videos of starlings, they’re from Britain. We do have murmurations here, but I have to depend on things like redwinged blackbirds and grackles for my flocks. The starlings I usually see number about four or five, and all they do is sit around the feeder and chow down, so I was pleased to find these blackbirds.

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