An Artist's Quest

Harmonious Flight: you and six neighbors

The muse of the starlings has led me to some revelations this week. First I will share some of what I found out about starlings, then what I think we can learn from the metaphor. From a New York Times article by Johathan Rosen I learned that a flock of Starlings is called a Murmuration.  If you have ever been close to where a flock has roosted I would say a murmur is an understatement it is more of a riot, but I digress.  Rosen goes on to say that in ancient Rome Starling Flight was studied for signs from the gods, believing that there was a message there if only we could understand it.  Modern scientists have been carefully studying starling flight as well. STARFLAG is a European project involving biologists, physicists, and economists dedicated to the study of Starling flight. Physicist Andrea Cavagna, of the project, says, “They do these incredible maneuvers but they never lose birds, they are always with the flock no matter how drastically they change the shape or the intensity, they always stay together.”  In the past it was assumed that each bird interacted with the whole flock of birds while in flight, but new observations show that each bird keeps an eye on only six or seven of its neighbors “They always interact with six or seven birds irrespective of what is the distance of these seven birds,” says Cavagna “That means that after an attack has taken place, and the flock has expanded, it can regroup very quickly because cohesion doesn’t rely strictly on the distance between the birds.”

Here is where the metaphorical lesson about Starlings comes in.  I have been thinking a lot about the nature of society this week after the violent attack on Gabrielle Giffords and those with her, an unspeakable tragedy that is hard for anyone to sort out.  Much of the post crisis analysis has been about the vitriolic discourse in our country today, and while it cannot held responsible for the act of a disturbed man perhaps the conversation is the one positive thing that can come of such a horror.  We need to be like Starlings in flight.  We need to keep an eye on six of our neighbors, help them, respond to them, guide and follow in turn to keep the flock safe.  We need to be mindful of the collective through the flight of our six neighbors. This is meant not only to protect the attacked in the flock but to show compassion for the attacker before a heinous act occurs, is there any way this and other like acts of violence could have been prevented?  Perhaps.  I heard an interview with comparative religions scholar Karen Armstrong on NPR yesterday.  She was speaking of the Charter for Compassion that is a call to all of us to make a pledge to be compassionate members of the world community, the Murmeration.  The website explains it as follows: “The Golden Rule requires that we use empathy — moral imagination — to put ourselves in others’ shoes. We should act toward them as we would want them to act toward us. We should refuse, under any circumstance, to carry out actions which would cause them harm.” To Read the charter and participate follow the link http://charterforcompassion.org/share/the-charter/.  In the New Testament Mark 12:30-31 tells us first to Love your God with your whole heart and soul and mind second love your neighbor as yourself, simple, right?.  So here in modern times perhaps we can divine meaning in the Starling flight.  There is something to be learned from the swarming Starlings dance at dusk before roosting and resting for the night.  They have showed us all that we need take to take beautiful, harmonious flight with our neighbors in concentric rings of six upon six upon six that encompass the whole wild, cacophonous, riotous, wondrous, Murmeration of humanity. Let’s try it, take flight and look out for your neighbors.

Following are links to the articles and websites I referenced in this post:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/22/magazine/22birds.t.html (Jonathan Rosen, NY Times article)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3323488/Study-of-starling-formations-points-way-for-swarming-robots.html (starling flight study)

http://charterforcompassion.org/share/the-charter/ (Read the charter and participate)

http://www.tedprize.org/karen-armstrong/ (interview with Karen Armstrong after winning the TED Prize)

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2 responses

  1. Brendan Swift

    Wonderful post, Lisa. I’ve had a day of starling thoughts as well, since Anya shared a youtube video of a spectacular “murmuration” over Otmoor, Oxfordshire, after which I watched several more. I don’t know if this was connected in any tangible way to your starling explorations – I don’t think so, because Anya reposted it from someone else – but I like to imagine that it was connected on a deeper level.

    I really like the piece that goes along with this post.

    I’ve spent most of my life with a vague hatred of starlings for how ecologically disruptive they’ve been in their spread around the planet. Today I’ve been thinking how they’re a lot like us humans in that way. But of course no creature is totally detrimental, and today I’ve started seeing how the starlings might have some amazing lessons for us, as the Romans suspected. They’re social creatures – we’re social creatures – social living arrangements can be seen as one of the greatest directions evolution has ever taken (cooperation before competition) – but we, young species that we are, obviously don’t have it figured out yet. We have war, murder, terrible inequalities… so your suggestion that we should act more like a murmuration of starlings is a wonderful one.

    I’m glad I picked today to catch up on your blog posts, which I always enjoy very much. I’m glad your trip to NY was good – and mazel tov to Francesca and her family! -Brendan

    January 24, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    • What a wonderful addition to the conversation about the Starlings! I like your observation about we humans being an invasive species like the starlings! I going to play off that idea sometime soon. Also the notion that there had to be cooperation before competition is a good one. We humans at some point learned to cooperate to survive, unfortunately I suspect part of the evolution of cooperation is towards better chance of competing… ah another paradox! I welcome your input and your good wishes.-Lisa

      January 25, 2011 at 8:58 am

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