I’m always pleased when I learn a new word and this week it was ‘murmuration’. The BBC News website has a stunning video of an estimated 70,000 starlings soaring and swooping in unison over an Oxfordshire nature reserve. It’s described as aerial ballet and the term murmuration comes from the sound of the birds’ beating wings. No-one knows for sure what triggers this phenomenon but there are probably many reasons including grouping together for safety and warmth, and for exchanging information about feeding areas.
Seeing this video reminded me of the plight of the passenger pigeon. At one time these birds were amongst the most common in North America. The skies above the prairies would turn black and blot out the sun as billions passed overhead. An account from 1855 describes people in Ohio witnessing this event. Children screamed and ran for home, horses bolted and women hurried for the shelter of shops, gathering their long skirts as they ran. Some people knelt down and prayed in fear. Then the seemingly impossible happened: they became extinct—wiped out through shooting, netting and forest fires—with the last one dying in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
I learned about this extraordinary demise from watching David Attenborough’s Life of Birds. This is part of my Life on Earth treat. There are nine series covering all aspects of the natural world from the deepest oceans to the furthest reaches of the Poles and jungles. I wrote about Life in Cold Blood in a previous post—Serpent Tales.
Aside from the passenger pigeon there were a number of other moments that stood out in Life of Birds. As so often happens with treats, they filled in gaps in my knowledge of the world and gave me new things to relate to. Having kept poultry myself, I was particularly pleased to find out about chickens’ eggs. I’d often wondered why they only lay once a day, and now I have my answer. The yolk and the albumen sit in the chicken’s oviduct, and it takes a day for the glands to secrete enough lime to create the hard shell. Then I heard about the kiwi bird whose egg is a quarter of its own body weight; my eyes watered as I imagined giving birth to a baby weighing two and a half stone.
The grebes were remarkable too. They’re attentive parents and make their chicks eat feathers. These line their little tummies and protect them from being pierced by sharp fish bones.
The series was filmed in 42 countries and whilst many of the birds seemed unfamiliar and exotic, I was glad that the humble sparrow got a mention. I discovered that they have markings on their feathers, like Army ranks, which denote where they come in the pecking order. There are the privates that have to give way to their superiors, and then there are the colonels with their black bib markings. All ranks defer to them. This finding changed me in one of the small ways that I welcome. Now, whenever I sit at an outdoor table in a café, I’ll enjoy the antics of the sparrows even more by knowing that they’re not as random as they seem.
For me, though, the star was the bowerbird, also found in Australia. The male goes to great lengths to attract females. He builds a bower from sticks, positions it vertically, and then decorates the surrounding area with flowers, stones, berries, leaves, and coins or even bits of brightly coloured glass if they’re available. He then spends hours arranging and re-arranging them, whilst various females go from bower to bower, making their choice.
A clip from a different series gives some insight into the romantic preferences of another animal—the rhinoceros. We, the viewers see a male trying his damnedest to win a female whilst she heedlessly ignores him in favour of a bigger animal. She dances about and flirts in a way I don’t normally associate with rhinoceroses. The spurned male disappears for a while and we think it’s all over. Then suddenly there he is again. Back with a set of antelope antlers draped rakishly over his horn. Immediately Ms Rhino is bewitched and she trips off, following him enthusiastically. I’d like to say that they live happily ever after but unfortunately relationships don’t always work out that way as you’ll see by clicking here.
So, for some that magic ingredient is good taste and possibly wealth. For others it’s individuality. But if you’re a human looking for a mate then it’s worth bearing in mind an excellent snippet of advice I heard on Radio 4. Marry someone cheerful. I intend to do that this summer.
Happy Valentine’s Day.