Helen Macdonald writes: There are 12 of us by the lake. Some have set out spotting scopes on tripods upon the grass; others carry binoculars. Silently we stand and wait for the Hungarian dusk. The sun slips behind an expanse of steely water, and the air grows colder. Then we hear a faint noise like baying hounds or discordant bugles, at first hardly discernible through the wind rattling the reeds. It grows into an unearthly clamor. ‘‘Here they come!’’ someone whispers. Overhead, a long, wavering chevron of beating wings is inked across the darkening sky. Behind it flows others, and there are others behind them, all passing overhead in ever-increasing waves, filling the air with an astonishing barrage of noise and beauty.
The birds above us are long-necked, graceful Eurasian cranes. Every autumn more than a hundred thousand of them stop off on their southward migration from Russia and Northern Europe to spend a few weeks in the Hortobagy region in northeastern Hungary, feeding on maize left in the fields after the harvest. Every night they fly to roost in huge numbers in the safety of shallow fish-farm lakes, attracting wildlife tourists who come here to witness the spectacle of their evening flights. Similarly impressive congregations can be seen in many other places. In Nebraska, more than half a million sandhill cranes fatten up in cornfields before continuing their spring migration; in Quebec, watchers thrill at blizzards of snow geese blotting out the sky as they rise from the St. François River. In Britain, clouds of wintering starlings flying to their roosts draw crowds of all ages.
Standing so close to such vast masses of birds affects everyone differently: Some people laugh, some cry, others shake their heads or utter profanities. Language fails in the face of immense flocks of beating wings. As I stare up in awe, it strikes me that this is, at heart, a kind of modern secular pilgrimage.
Our brains are built to wrest familiar meaning from the confusions of the world. Watching the cranes at dusk, I see them turn first into strings of musical notation, then mathematical patterns. The snaking lines synchronize so that each bird raises its wings a fraction before the one behind it, each moving flock suddenly resolving itself into a filmstrip showing a single bird stretched through time. It is an astonishing image that makes me blink in surprise. Part of the allure of flocking birds is their ability to provoke optical illusions. I remember my astonishment as a child watching thousands of shorebirds flying against a gray sky vanish and reappear in an instant as the birds turned their countershaded bodies in the air. Perhaps the best-known example is the hosts of European starlings that assemble in the sky before they roost. We call them murmurations, but the Danish term, sort sol, is better: black sun. It captures their almost celestial strangeness. Standing on the Suffolk coast a few years ago, I saw a far-flung mist of starlings turn in a split second into an ominous sphere like a dark planet hanging over the marshes. Everyone around me gasped audibly before it exploded in a maelstrom of wings. [Continue reading…]