Skip to main content

An Argument of Fowls

The great gold crane presides an empty building site
this evening as the light fails. On its overreaching arm,
locked until morning, gather starlings in their thousands, each
a separated dot of black,
finding its own place on the fretwork,
plain to see against the backlit wash of sky.
Collective noun for starlings? Fifty years ago
I learnt it as a truth as solid as
the capital of Ecuador, the crops
principally grown in Thailand and Cambodia,
the product of twelve twelves.

                                                    A murmuration.
And a source of wonderment, that word!
Its length. Its difference from its duller fellows — herds and flocks.
The teacher loved it too. It was her chance
to lead us boldly into criticism, aided by a term
yet more exotic, liquid on the tongue
and bound to feature in the spelling test next week:
that ‘murmuration’ was a case of onomatopoeia
was as sure as Quito.

                                     The Boke of Saint Albans,
printed 1486, collects the phrase (with scores of others,
as ‘a Cherme of Goldefynches’, ‘an Exaltying of Larkis’).
It uses the old form ‘stares’ for starlings.
We children didn’t know how many centuries had passed
since starlings first had been supposed to murmur as the night comes on.
And yet the evidence I hear this evening, as the night comes on,
is contrary: not murmuring — that quiet conversation of familiars —
but angry squawking in the way antagonists
will interrupt each other’s sentences, their voices
climbing over one another, bullying the audience,
insisting on the satisfaction of the final word.

Will this — I fall back on the default noun (the duller fellow)
for a group of birds — will this great flock of starlings
take advantage of the steady, leafless, metal bough
extended from a sudden trunk
to roost in, high above the planes and sycamores?

I have my answer in the almost dark.
Collective nouns (those friends I used to think that I could trust)
may fail me, but collective memory — the unschooled,
common mental property of crowds — endures.
The animals make wing down to the trees in clouds.