Seeing Starlings

Chris Arthur

Editor’s note: This essay is included in the list of “Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2022” in the just published The Best American Essays 2023.

It’s a fine summer’s morning in St Andrews, Scotland. We’re standing at the kitchen window watching starlings. Whatever we were doing—chores, revision, listening to the radio—has been paused. We’re absorbed in one of those moments of pure attention when we lose ourselves in what’s around us, become engaged by unremarkable particularities which have somehow shaken off their ordinariness so that they’re able to catch the eye completely, capture its restless gaze in an embrace that locks out all distraction. It doesn’t last for long. The old regimes that rule us soon reassert their authority. Mine demands that I turn my attention back to putting away the dishes; my daughter’s that she finishes some work for her upcoming exams. Outside, the starlings scuttle and peck across the lawn for a little longer before flying off, continuing their brief lives as we continue ours.

Were it not for the fact that I write about things like this, wrestle them to the page and try to catch and fix their dimensions within a caging tracery of sentences, this starling-watching moment would soon have been forgotten, its occurrence unmarked by anything except the desultory comments we made at the time: “Look, Dad, that one’s pecking the other’s tail.” “I wonder what they’re getting from the lawn. Can you see what they’re eating?” “The juveniles are fatter than the adults. They’re so cute!” “What a squabble!”

To chronicle is at once to celebrate and condemn. The celebration comes from recognizing that the moment is gravid with a weight and density beyond its immediate impact. Just behind what obviously strikes the eye lie altogether different realms of meaning. The condemnation is a consequence of this realization. It sentences ordinary diction to inadequacy. Seen in this light, our everyday accounts scarcely seem to scratch the surface of what’s there.

I can’t recall the first time I saw starlings, or how they appeared on that occasion, before repetition fed memory’s store and allowed comparison, association and judgement to weave the gauze through which they now appear. Perhaps once I would have been fully immersed in the vivid immediacy of their presence, felt the exact chromatic heft and weave of their plumage charm the watching eye. Perhaps I could have focused unwaveringly on their strut and swagger across a lawn without thinking of parallels and precedents. Maybe once I could have seen without valuing, without wondering, without questioning, without recognition of how one thing links always to another. In this imagined first encounter with starlings, my attention would have been snugly contained in the cupped hands of the moment, not lured into past or future. Isn’t this what the rapt attention of babies and young children stems from? Their temporal innocence, the fact that they’re encountering things afresh, unmarked by the grid of experience or anticipation, means they can be immersed in perception’s now and attend single-mindedly to the light touch of things, unweighted by any baggage of preconception.

Even supposing I ever had it, I’ve long lost the ability to see starlings in the arresting brightness of their unique singularity. I can’t focus only on the way they occupy a moment. Instead, they’re percolated through a history spiked with memories, associations, judgements and musings. In the same conceptual breath as I watched them on the lawn that morning in St Andrews, the moment was close-shackled to others in a chain of links that at once enslaves and enables the mind, taking it to other times and places and then back again, weaving the shimmering thread of consciousness between past and present on which our identity is spun. Any supposed purity of the moment, the instantaneous present where what meets the eye doesn’t leak beyond the territory of raw immediacy, is compromised—complicated—as soon as we leave the shallows of infant perception.

Whenever I see them now, starlings take me back to where I grew up in Northern Ireland, and to our leafy suburban garden in Lisburn, County Antrim. So, standing with my daughter at the kitchen window of our house in St Andrews watching the antics of these Scottish birds, I’m also thinking about Ireland several decades ago. And as I try to write about this starling moment—which is in fact a braid of moments rippling through my consciousness—I’m in both places and also standing back from them, marveling at the way our minds can weave things together. Sometimes I despair of forging sentences that can even remotely convey the intricate threadwork of memory, perception and language through which we name things and clad the world with sense.

Throughout my childhood, starlings used to nest each year in the eaves of the house next door to ours. From there, the whir and cackle of their chatter was a familiar sound of summer. Their raucous din included a medley of imitative sounds spliced in alongside the indigenous starling repertoire. They sometimes mimicked other birds—including species never met with in the garden, so that the soulful cry of a curlew might suddenly surprise you, miles from where these birds are found. The starlings also imitated telephones and alarm clocks. I’ve heard it said that captive ones sometimes mimic speech, but I’ve not witnessed this myself. Starlings are gregarious birds, more often seen in groups than singly. “Flock” seems too soft a word for them. It was something more like a rabble or a pack that used to swoop down to swagger on our lawn, urgently pecking at something in the daisy-studded grass. Whatever it was they found there was too small to be seen—unlike the regular crop of worms harvested from the same small acreage by blackbirds and thrushes.

In our lexicon of birds, starlings were unpopular. They were considered noisy, dirty, common; the avian equivalent of working class at best. They enjoyed none of the sentimental favor we conferred on robins, none of the grandeur allowed to raptors; none of the beauty that we granted finches. No knights of the air, we thought of them as knaves of the bird world. Their swaggering gait when they were on the ground had none of the sweetness we saw in, say, a blue-tit’s hopping. Starlings seemed possessed of a kind of minatory alertness, a rapacious intelligence that gave them the air of unlovable rogues.

One of my aunts disliked starlings so much that whenever they appeared on her bird-table and scared away more favored species, she adopted the straightforward expedient of shooting them, taking the view that they were no better than vermin. Though sometimes shocked by such a ruthless approach, I never heard anyone condemn her cull. If she’d shot robins, people would have been outraged—an illustration of the huge disparity in treatment meted out to the creatures around us according to our flimsily founded valuations. Out of such human whims the destiny of whole species may be decided.

Why did we take such a negative view of starlings? Perhaps it was due simply to the frequency with which we saw them. Sturnus vulgaris is one of Northern Ireland’s commonest bird species. Or maybe our dim view of them stemmed from the mess of droppings associated with their massive urban roosts. Or it could be that the aerial displays of huge flocks of the birds at dusk, wheeling in the sky before they settle for the night—their famous “murmurations”—suggested a swarm of insects rather than anything avian.

Despite our low opinion of starlings—an estimation I shared for years—we allowed one exception to the rule. This amnesty from our general condemnation was extended to an injured bird. Where all its fellows walked about on two legs, with the species’s characteristic swagger, this bird hopped about on one. The other leg was a withered stump, the claw balled into a fused and useless lump. We always looked out for this particular individual when the starlings were feeding on our lawn and were surprised—and pleased—to see it holding its own amidst the rough and tumble of the crowd. We speculated about the injury—was it born with a deformed leg, or had it been maimed in some accident, contracted a disease, or perhaps survived a mauling from a cat or hawk? Whatever the reason for its affliction, we admired its pluckiness, the fact that it survived against the odds. And of course its withered leg bestowed a mark—it functioned almost like a name—so that we could always recognize it however many starlings swarmed across our lawn. We reacted to it as an individual, not simply as an anonymous representative of a species that was viewed with suspicion and disdain.

Sometimes when I look back at my childhood in Northern Ireland, growing up in the years when sectarian conflict was raging, I can’t help thinking that Protestants and Catholics both suffered from the tendency to view each other pretty much as we viewed starlings. In the religious apartheid that fractured Ulster society back then, each side viewed the other as an undifferentiated mass of unwanted competitors, a tribe of untrustworthy rivals who had somehow gained access to the same territory and posed a threat. I’d not wish maiming on anyone, but it’s a pity there hadn’t been some non-injurious functional equivalent to that injured starling’s leg, something that would have helped us all to see individuals within these unhelpfully divisive groupings. If we’d learnt to recognize specific people rather than anonymous swarms, if we’d focused on idiosyncrasies rather than stereotypes, respected individuals rather than rejected groups, it might not have taken so long to edge things away from the brink of catastrophe. Failing to see individuals, labeling and condemning groups, is one of our more perilous human traits.

I don’t know what an average lifespan for a starling is—how little we know about even the commonest creatures around us—but we were amazed to find the injured starling surviving several seasons. Once it disappeared for a month or two—leastways we never saw it among the other starlings on the lawn. We assumed it must have died and so were surprised—delighted—when it reappeared one morning as if it had been there all the time. Its injury—and the individuation this brokered—endeared it to us.

Although it’s obvious that seeing in the sense of understanding involves much more than just plain sight, I need to remind myself that the optical mechanics of the eye operate at a different level from the way we see the world. Perhaps the primacy normally accorded to the visual lays on sight an expectation of straightforwardness that obscures complexities. Or maybe, dazed by glimpsing the stupendous texture of the real, we crave the reassuring illusion that all we have to do to see things as they are is open our eyes and the world will flood in exactly as it appears to be—bounded, limited, familiar, submitting readily to language’s classifications. For whatever reason, I know I’m susceptible to thinking of seeing as something simpler than it is. This means I envy the exactness of realistic artists, the precision of close-up photographs. Such things seem able to create an achingly exact likeness of what is there. A point-by-point recapitulation between what’s on the page or screen and what meets the eye has a particular allure. The wizardry of semblance casts a spell. There’s a special kind of magnetism in matching up with words—or lines and colors—the lineaments of the real. The appeal of such realistic depiction is shored up by a persistent feeling that’s haunted me for years—that if you describe something perfectly, with absolute precision, you’ve achieved something curiously worthwhile. I’m not sure why I think such exact mirroring is something valuable. But for all the appeal of the visual transcription it involves, I know that it’s impossible to achieve a one-to-one equivalence between what we experience and what we paint or photograph or write. The richness of the world does not yield to our representations. Thinking that it does demeans it.

How I see starlings depends in part, of course, on the actual birds in front of me. But the image of them that I come to have in mind depends on far more than the moment of direct perception through which they’re apprehended by the senses. Watching the starlings that morning with my daughter wasn’t just a case of seeing the birds crowded on the lawn. Spliced inseparably into this straightforward view was the ghost of that injured starling from childhood, how we used to view the species so dismissively, memories of finding starlings’ eggs—which are a beautiful sky-blue, and of watching huge flocks turn and twist like smoke as the birds approach their evening roosts.

Thinking of the starlings on my lawn in St Andrews and the starlings on the lawn of my childhood home in Ireland all those years ago, I’m prompted also to think of the dense tangle of lines between these two points in my history; how my life has been knotted together between these two moments of starling-studded orientation. A stupefying wealth of people, places, happenings mesh together to make the fabric of history that links these two points in my personal time-space. Its complexity mocks the idea of portraying fully, realistically, what is contained between now and then. Such musings lead me on to thinking about how our human bloodline—like that of the starlings—stretches back over the eons, century after century, millennia after millennia, until it reaches that mysterious point of genesis that spawned us, from which all of us began. How could we portray in anything other than the most pared down terms the ways in which such genealogies touch and separate and bear their payload of individuals through time? A written line—a written volume—is a childishly simple thing compared to the stories such bloodlines tell.

At this point in my life, I think of starlings quite differently from the way I did before. I’ve deserted the dismissive view of them as vermin. I like their energy; their loud gregarious presence suggests a cheerful brusqueness that I warm to. They may swagger and brag like ruffians, but I’ve grown to like the busy-ness and clamor of this ragged bunch of rough-hewn visitors to my garden. And the fact that they’ve survived and flourished—in spite of our low valuation of them—confers upon them a certain distinction. They are testimony to the fact that nature frequently ignores our whims and partialities.

In fact, starlings have come to represent for me two levels of seeing that seem to characterize our experience. On the one hand, there’s the kind of straightforward observation that yields to commonsense account—like that moment in the kitchen when my daughter and I paused in our morning routines to watch the birds feeding on the lawn. At this level it’s easy enough to give an account of things, to say what happened, to transcribe what we saw, heard, felt. On the other hand, there’s the realization that all such moments of ordinary passage through the world are looped and linked and tangled in a network of incredible connections. We are caught like the tiniest of midges somewhere in the labyrinth of existence’s gargantuan web, a web that sprawls its reach over eons. When the recognition dawns that anything soon leads to everything, the idea of a perfect description, one that leaves out nothing and is unimpeachably precise in its delineation, becomes absurd.

Until you take into account a dramatic aspect of their appearance, starlings may seem unlikely symbols for these two modes of seeing. They so easily appear as drab, ungainly, rather ugly birds. Their dark feathers look almost oily with an unattractive hint of mottled colors not quite showing through. But seen in another light—particularly in spring and summer when their plumage is at its best—their iridescence can catch the sun and show a magnificent sheen of green and purple spotted with a pointillism of white. Paintings and photos of the bird almost never catch this transformation. It depends on a subtle alchemy of light, posture, and angle. The way they alternate between beauty and ugliness, dullness and splendor, is perhaps another reason behind the negative view of starlings to which many people still subscribe. Being visually elusive, having a latent quality of change, oscillating between one state and another, means these chromatic chameleons may seem troublingly transgressive—not easily fitted into our categories.

This ability to shift between mundane and magnificent echoes in miniature the way in which our perception of the world has a perplexing alternating pulse sewn into it. On the one hand, things appear ordinary, unexceptional, routine—they can be categorized, ordered, labelled. On the other hand, they constitute the tip of an iceberg of something utterly extraordinary that underlies us all the time and on whose hidden bulk the frail craft of our everyday discourse soon founders. Yes, in one sense I can describe the starling moment well enough, fix it on the page. But in another sense, I can’t begin to lift the cargo that it represents. The way in which their iridescence blinks on and off, making them appear so differently, suddenly blazing into a vision that ruptures the drab certainties of our usual valuations, is emblematic of the way in which the possibility of metamorphosis is latent within every moment, revealing wonder in the quotidian. If we could teach ourselves to glimpse it more often, perhaps our walking through the world might become more like meditation, less like marauding; more reverent than rapacious.

Photo by Ray Bilcliff from Pexels