Last weekend my neighbour from across the road knocked on our door, asking if we could help. There was a starling trapped in her bird feeder and she didn’t know how to get it out. She said she was a little afraid of birds, but she knew I was ‘good with animals’, so wondered if I could come over and try to free it. My husband Simon grabbed the wire cutters and away we went. The poor thing was properly wedged inside a fat-ball feeder, with its head through one section and its right wing through another. It must have gone down through the top and we realized quickly that the only way to get it out was to cut it out. It remained still and didn’t struggle as we carefully cut through the wire, although I could feel it shaking as I supported its (very tiny) weight while Simon made the cuts. I wasn’t sure how long it had been there, but the minute it was free, its survival instincts kicked in and it flapped its wings, desperate to escape. I could see that, amazingly, it didn’t look injured despite its ordeal, apart from some ruffled feathers and a slight mark on its neck and since it began to shout very loudly and indignantly at me in bird language to let it go, I did. It flew away across the field a little shakily at first, but then it swooped up and joined the others on the wire above the house. I like to think it was telling them all about its experience and warning them of the dangers of going head-first into a wire feeder that had lost its top.
Being in such close proximity to this lovely bird got me pondering on how much they play a part of my life.
Come the beginning of winter, we are surrounded by starlings here at our smallholding. Within a couple of weeks of waving a sad goodbye to the swallows, I’m always pleased to welcome the little squadrons that start to arrive around the end of October. By the end of November, there are great waves of them crossing the land from East to West in the mornings and West to East in the evenings and if I’m out in the fields, I usually hear the beat of their wings before I see them. As I sit in my conservatory typing this, they are all around me in the trees and on the bird feeder. Sometimes there are hundreds of them and the energy they give off is incredible. I know people travel for miles to watch their spectacular ‘murmurations’ as they come into roost in the evenings and I feel very blessed to be able to see them from the comfort of my own home. I’ll be honest, sometimes the way they move on the ground ‘en masse’ can be a little disconcerting, especially as they seem to swarm around the bird seed in a frenzy, moving over each other, in a way not dissimilar to rats.
They squabble like siblings over the food and chatter away endlessly. The repertoire of sounds they make is fascinating. There are a couple who visit our trees and feeder who have particular skills of mimicking specific other birds – one who pretends to be a curlew, and another who does a perfect buzzard impression. I often look up expecting to see a buzzard circling on the thermals, before I realise I’ve been tricked by the starlings again. They are also reported to mimic human voices, sheep and of course car alarms, police sirens and ‘trim-phones’. No-body quite knows why they do it, but the theory seems to be that the males do it to impress prospective mates.
There’s something about starlings that really speaks to me, metaphorically as well as physically. Many people think of them as ‘pests’, invading the bird feeder and chasing away the smaller birds, not to mention pooping on the washing and the windows, but I love them. From a distance, they just look like little brown-black birds, but close up, their plumage is beautiful, with purple and green iridescent black feathers edged and tipped with gold. Their capacity for connectedness to each other, whilst at the same time remaining individual really fascinates me. Sometimes as I sit listening to the cacophony of twittering, chirping and clicking, I imagine myself inside something like a hive mind, in a slightly altered state of consciousness, mesmerized by the sounds, but aware of something greater than me as an individual. And then something unseen (at least by me, unaware human that I am) startles them and in an instant they all take off at speed, moving as one. And then silence reigns. Until a few brave souls return the feeder and it starts all over again.
Symbolically, birds in general are associated with many things, including the challenge of balancing freedom with responsibility. In the case of Starling specifically, though, the message is one of individual freedom versus collective responsibility. It is about finding your individual voice whilst at the same time taking your rightful place within the wider group. We know how hard this can be as humans. How do we make sure that we speak our own truth but at the same time play our part in the groups we belong to and even within wider society? And how vulnerable do we feel if we do speak our truth? Should we compromise our own voice in order to be a part of something bigger? How can we use our voice to move society in a particular direction? What are the consequences for us as individuals or the group if we speak out of turn?
When we think about the message of Starling, there’s also something important about the fact that they are such clever mimics. Have you ever found yourself speaking someone else’s words? I know I have. I think it happens a lot more than we care to acknowledge, particularly if we lack confidence in speaking up. Sometimes it can be helpful as a way of practicing how to say what we need to say. We may hear someone say something that we agree with, but instead of putting our own stamp on the message, we mimic and regurgitate what they say and, if we are especially good at mimicry, we may even speak in the same way or actually sound like the other person. Sometimes, we don’t realise we are taking on other people’s way of speaking or sayings. For instance, how many times have you said something and thought, ‘Oh I sound just like my mother/father/boss (insert relevant person)’, or perhaps someone else has said ‘You sound just like your (insert relevant person)…’ and it’s come as a shock. If it’s done unconsciously, then that is something to watch out for, as it may mean we are taking on characteristics of others without realizing and we need to check our boundaries.
On the note of boundaries, Starling also (helpfully) teaches us about this. When flying in tight formation in a murmuration, each individual starling is responsible for maintaining its own personal space and not crashing into the ones around it. The consequences for getting this wrong can be very serious not just for individuals but for the whole flock. Unfortunately, there was an instance very recently on Anglesey where around 250 starlings were found dead on a road, with injuries consistent with having hit something solid at speed, including some impaled in the hedge on either side. It was as though they had all just fallen out of the sky. This terrible discovery was made early in the morning, the day after stormy weather and high winds. Although much head-scratching and speculation took place as to the cause, the experts concluded that it was likely that they were probably trying to avoid a bird of prey and in their panic, when the formation swooped down low, the lowest ones simply had nowhere to go but to hit the ground. Fortunately, this type of tragedy is a very rare occurrence and most of the time, starlings provide the most dazzling show of mesmerizing shapes as they twist and turn in the evening sky, before plummeting down to their roosts, seemingly moving as one. Their ability to move in this way comes from an awareness of exactly where they are in relation to the birds around them.
Starling teaches of embodied awareness of ourselves in relation to others and our environment. Although we have this inbuilt capacity, too, you only have to walk round a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon to notice that the majority of humans don’t make much use of it! We are so internally focused and therefore disconnected from others around us that we are often genuinely surprised (or possibly annoyed) if someone comes up behind us and asks us to move out of the way. Clearly, the stakes are not so high in Tesco’s if we happen to bump into someone as they would be if we were, say, flying as part of the Red Arrows RAF display team, or even just driving on the motorway at 70 miles per hour, but we should not underestimate the importance of cultivating an awareness of our own individual actions in relation to others and the wider environment wherever we are or whatever we are doing. If starlings flying in formation began to squabble and fight as they do at the bird feeder, the whole flock would be weakened and at risk from predators, and they would no doubt fall out of the sky more often. Safety in numbers also requires co-operation and each bird taking its rightful place in the greater whole.
The metaphorical message of Starling, then, is about balancing individual freedom within collective responsibility and the need for healthy boundaries. Strange as it may sound, it is through establishing our place in the greater whole that we can find individual freedom. We need to define our boundaries, cultivate an embodied awareness of where we fit in relation to others and we also need to not be afraid to speak our own Truth. And … if we occasionally feel like doing impressions of car alarms and trim-phones, well then we’ll know we have really become ‘more Starling’!