Sunday, 9 January 2011


A starling murmuration above the Exe reed beds, Topsham

Murmuration of Starlings

Thousands of voices in a winged parliament, apparently unanimous; they consent together, these flocks of birds. They mount as with one heart and will and purpose, which may be said to be a parable of example to Britain in these urgent days. A whole multitude of starlings will rise into the sky with a surprise of instinctive discipline; they may divide into three or four companies which wheel about only to unite with perfect timing to continue the flight, a thrilling sight to see.

This nice quote comes, surprisingly, as part of advertising copy for Bestobell asbestos products in The Industrial Chemist, November 1945 (the starlings are used as a metaphor for teamwork).

We of Bell's are rather proud of a far-flung organisation based on the United Kingdom and extending through the alphabet from Australia and Argentina to West Africa, from China to Peru as the saying is. (It is a live and active marketing organisation which is ready to be of service to other manufacturers.) But we are very proud of the fact that in every part of the organisation a unanimity of zeal in team-work speeds to serve our multitudinous customers, bringing to them in engineering problems large and small the resources of our skill, experience and research. Starlings have their place in the economy of nature; Bell's in the well-being, efficiency and productivity of industry.

Such coordination seemingly doesn't always work. The excellent Lol Manuscripts blog just annotated a 1622 tract, The Wonderfull Battell of Starelings, reporting how in 1621 in Cork, Ireland, masses of dead and maimed starlings fell from the sky - a spot of Forteana explicable, as far as I can tell, by a collective navigation error leading to two starling flocks crashing head-on.

Starlings exhibit one of the best-known examples of flocking phenomena, when massed animals appear to act as a coherent unit due entirely to nearest-neighbour interactions. (We regularly see these starling flocks over the marshes by the River Exe opposite Topsham). The general dynamics are quite well understood (particularly via the work of Craig Reynolds on "boids" simulations), but the specifics for starlings were recently analysed in more detail by the European STARFLAG (Starlings in Flight) project:

Current computer models assume that each bird interacts with all birds within a certain distance. But the new observations, however, show that each bird keeps under control a fixed number of neighbours - seven other starlings - irrespective of their distance, which is the secret of how they stick together.

"This is very robust and works wherever your neighbours are," says Andrea Cavagna of Italy’s National Institute for the Physics of Matter.

A flock under predator attack may expand dramatically, but birds can regroup very quickly because the cohesion does not depend on the physical distance among starlings, but rather on their ability to interact with a fixed number of neighbours.

- Study of starling formations points way for swarming robots, Roger Highfield, Science News, The Telegraph, 29 Jan 2008

Technical details aside, "murmuration" is an interesting word. From the OED:

1. a. The action of murmuring; the continuous utterance of low, barely audible sounds; complaining, grumbling; an instance of this. Now chiefly literary.
b. Sc. Rumouring; the action of spreading a rumour or rumours. Obs.

2. A flock (of starlings).
One of many alleged group terms found in late Middle English glossarial sources, but not otherwise substantiated.

- Oxford English Dictionary

The reason for the OED's use of "alleged" is elaborated in a landmark paper, Proper Terms: An attempt at a rational explanation of the meanings of the Collection of Phrases in "The Book of St Albans," 1486, entitled "The Compaynys of beestys and fowlys" and similar lists., John Hodgkin, Transactions of the Philological Society 1907-1910 Part III, pp 1 - 187, Kegan, Paul, Trench & Trübner & Co, Ltd, London, 1909.

Hodgkin says of these collective nouns a.k.a. company terms:

In the year 1486 there was printed at St. Albans an extremely interesting book, which for want of any specific title is generally known as " The Book of St. Albans." In that portion in which the Treatise on Hunting is contained there occurs a list which is headed "The Compaynys of beestys and fowlys," and consists of a strange and motley collection of queer expressions, which at first sight are not easily explicable. On reference to such of these terms as are contained in the portions already issued of that monumental work, the New English Dictionary, it is found that where the explanations are given they are generally stated to be 'technical,' ' fanciful,' or 'alleged' terms for a 'company' of this or that, and we are told that these were " artificial terms invented in the fifteenth century as distinctive collectives referring to particular animals or classes of persons"; and it was in order to get at the root of the matter, and settle it once and for all, that the present investigation was undertaken, and I hope to be able to show from the evidence collected that the majority of these arc not company terms, and that there are no solid grounds for supposing them to be such.

This Hodgkin proceeds to do, and finds various errors in attribution: miscopying; texts meant to illustrate other turns of phrase than collectives; terms not substantiated in contemporary dictionaries; and so on. In the case of "murmuration", it appears that its inclusion in sources - "a murmuracion of stares" - was actually intended to list the word for the noise starlings make, not a collective noun for the birds themselves. Hodgkin concludes by describing the process of copying ...

6. That Skinner misunderstood the St. Albans list, imagining that all the phrases contained in it were intended to be company terms, and that in consequence he misinterpreted it; that Handle Holme, followed by Halliwell, still further extended this idea.

7. That Skinner's attempted explanations and definitions are wrong, with the exception of a few accepted company terms, and that the meanings he gives, and in some instances the derivations, are irrational.

The definitions of Skinner and Halliwell seem to have been followed by the [New English Dictionary] which has extended considerably the number of phrases in "The Hors, Shepe, and Ghoos" and "The Book of St. Albans" lists to be interpreted as company terms.

... that enshrined it as a collective. Over most of the word's history, however, there's little evidence of its practical use as one. A glance at Google Books N-gram Viewer and clicking through to book search (see here) finds that in the 19th century the majority of uses of "murmuration" were in the first OED meaning - grumbling/complaining - and that "murmuration of starlings" chiefly occurs in boilerplate repetition of lists of collectives. It's only in the 20th century that it starts making a live appearance in mainstream language, perhaps kicked off by WH Auden.

Inspire them with such a longing as will make his thought
Alive like patterns a murmuration of starlings
Rising in joy over wolds unwittingly weave;
- Look, Stranger!, WH Auden, 1936

If he came, so must she; but she was bored stiff by the whole performance; she felt, and looked, as alien as a bird of paradise in a murmuration of starlings.
- Miss Buncle's book, Dorothy Emily Stevenson, 1937

The clearing ended where a derelict stone building, roofless and black with spreading moss, held back a grove of leafless elms, where a murmuration of starlings was gathered.
- Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake, 1946

The new owners watched as a murmuration of starlings swooped and chattered in the fading sky;
- Mr. Blandings builds his dream house, Eric Hodgins, 1946

For once, the sun took her by surprise. A murmuration of starlings swept up from a wind-swept meadow swinging and shining with morning.
- A Clouded Star, Anne Parrish, 1948

They were brief and simple: Sussex, Oxford, London; birds, water meadows, a London Square where a murmuration of starlings arrived every evening to take possession of the plane trees;
- The greyhound in the leash, Joyce Mary Horner, 1949

Now, "murmuration" makes regular appearance in nature news stories as a practical collective name for the spectacular clouds of starlings seen at dusk before they roost for the night; see, variously, Murmuration of starlings signals that winter is here, Starlings' pier show on display, The mathematics of murmurating starlings, and so on. It's a nice word, and I hope it thrives. But to put in context, "murmuration of starlings" is, and always has been, used considerably less than the more mundane phrase "flock of starlings" (see Google Books N-gram Viewer again).

- Ray

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