Prodded by my dog, I step out the front door of our house this late December day to go walking—and I’m immediately greeted by a chorus of birds. The first notes to welcome me are the soft, reedy trills of bohemian waxwings, so pleasing to the ear and spirit. Hundreds of the birds are perched upon trees and fly through the neighborhood, a grand and cheering presence.
Before I leave the yard, the waxwings’ trills are joined by a black-capped chickadee’s raspy call and a raven’s loud cawing. And by the time I walk to the end of my short, dead-end street, several other species have joined the choir: red-breasted nuthatch, black-billed magpie, European starling, hairy woodpecker, pine grosbeak.
All are common winter residents of my Turnagain neighborhood. But to have them present together, their voices joined at various times in something of an avian symphony, well, that’s unusual. So I stand there awhile, taking it all in, both calmed and cheered by their presence.
Eventually—inevitably—my mind fills with thoughts. Because only a few days remain until the end of 2020, I can’t help but reflect upon what a hard, chaotic, and in many ways dismal and sorrowful year this has been, not only for humans but also for the larger world we inhabit. Yes, the darkness has been recently tempered by hopeful signs of light, but for many the trials and sorrows and losses persist.
I also think about how blessed—and yes, privileged—my life is, as I rapidly approach my seventy-first birthday. Among the greatest blessings are the gifts that nature brings.
A scrolling through this year’s City Wilds columns would reveal all sorts of wild marvels that offer pleasure, solace, and wonder, right here in Alaska’s urban center and our neighboring “backyard wilderness,” the Chugach Front Range..
For now I’ll focus on waxwings, which bring me such delight and a touch of mystery as they sweep through Anchorage during our darkest, harshest months. In a roundabout way, starlings too come into play.
I’ll begin with this: in the 14 years I’ve lived in west Anchorage, never have I seen so many waxwings moving through my neighborhood.
For weeks, I’ve witnessed large flocks of the crested and eye-masked, trilling birds almost daily, often in the hundreds. And on one amazing day—Dec. 11, according to my journal—a flock of at least a thousand bohemians flew overhead. Their passage began with several groups lifting from nearby trees and bushes. Those were soon followed by others coming from more distant trees. And then still more, appearing suddenly and already in flight, all of them moving south to north, an immense flock of trilling birds, wave after wave of them, breathtaking.
Then, more recently, two things happened that got my attention. First, I noticed a distant flock of waxwings, which briefly formed a dark ball in the sky, their bodies tight together, or so it appeared from afar. The ball soon broke apart and the birds flew toward me, hundreds of them still in synchronized flight but a looser formation. Though I’ve seen large waxwing flocks spiral and loop, I’d never seen anything like this. The spectacle reminded me of the massive starling flights that occur in Britain, called murmurations.
A few days after that, I read a letter in the local daily newspaper, written by a resident who’d observed what she called an unmistakable “murmuration of starlings . . . A knife swooping up, then a roller coaster down and around.” Seen while driving to Costco, it lasted only seconds, but clearly brightened her day, “An unexpected gift.”
All of this got me wondering: what exactly does “murmuration” mean? And is the term applied only to starlings?
An online search revealed that “murmuration” has a few different meanings. Most commonly it refers to “the phenomenon that results when hundreds, sometimes thousands, of starlings fly in swooping, intricately coordinated patterns through the sky.” But at least some people apply the term to any “great cloud of birds that fly in orchestrated formations.”
I even found online references—some accompanied by videos—to murmurations of waxwings, though I discovered that the proper collective noun for the species is “a museum of waxwings.”
While murmuration makes some sense, because the passage of flocking birds can sound something like a murmur, “museum” to me makes no sense at all. It turns out that the collective nouns for many bird species are equally nonsensical. For instance “a hermitage of thrushes,” “a booby of nuthatches,” “a murder of crows,” or “a curfew of curlews.” Researchers who have studied these terms say that many trace their origins to as long ago as the fifteenth century and presumably made sense to their original namers.
The more I’ve learned, the more fascinating it all seems—both the birds’ behaviors and our naming and interpretation of those behaviors—and I recommend that those who find any of this intriguing do an online search, starting with “murmuration.” Especially remarkable are some of the videos made of starling murmurations, which may include many thousands of birds swirling through the skies.
As you might expect, scientific explanations have been given for both the why and the how of murmurations. But I’ll leave that for another time. Here I’ll simply express my appreciation for the gifts of birds and other wild creatures and the “natural phenomena” that surround us all the time and which, if we’re able and willing to pay attention, add mystery, joy, and wonder to our lives, even in hard, unsettling times.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.