The collective nouns that are used for animals reveals a poetic sensibility that can be evocative but can also be downright impolite. If you were a rhinoceros and hanging out with other rhinos would you want to be referred to as ‘a crash of rhinoceroses’? Or if you were a hippopotamus and were gathering with other hippos would ‘a bloat of hippopotamuses’ float your boat? And I think calling a collection of tigers ‘an ambush of tigers’ is just pre-judging them, just expecting them to misbehave. Birds on the whole come out of this a lot better. ‘A parliament of owls’ is suggestive of thoughtfulness and deliberation even if today’s politicians tend to spoil these associations. You couldn’t imagine anything nicer than ‘a charm of goldfinches’ could you? But even with birds the naming of collectives takes on a gothic tilt: ‘a gulp of magpies’; ‘a murder of crows’; ‘an unkindness of ravens’.
A murmuration of starlings has to be the best way of naming a collection of starlings, and therefore the best collective noun because starlings are really head and shoulders above the rest of us when it comes to being and acting collectively. For anyone who has witnessed a murmuration of starlings coming in to land in some wetlands, or finding a perch on the burnt out remains of a pleasure pier, it is a stunning sight of pulsing, swooping, flitting movement choreographed by thousands and thousands of birds in synchronised formations. The patterns that these starlings make are formless forms: it looks as if they are constantly on the verge of revealing something – a word, or the face of god. Murmuration is as near as you can get to describing the sorts of clustering that starlings make: it doesn’t suggest the visual aspect of their swarming but nails the white-noise impact of their movement, and the crescendos and diminuendos of their gathering. I think we should reserve the word murmuration for starlings, but if we did use it in another context it might be fitting, albeit differently, for actors. Thus ‘a murmuration of extras’ would designate a large group of actors in a restaurant scene, for instance, whose main role is to provide visual noise and the sort of rise and fall of a humming murmur as background to the protagonists’ dialogue.
According to Chris Pagham – friend to the ordinary animal, scourge to those who sentimentalise cuteness – Britain is steadily losing its starling populations. It turns out that this has nothing much to do with global warming but is linked to global politics; to be precise, to a form of dictatorial state control in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s. It seems that Comrade Stalin was super keen on starlings as a form of natural pest control. He authorised a Union wide programme of environmental encouragement to starlings. When winter froze the ground the starlings migrated, and some of them came to Britain. In the 1940s the winter population of starlings in East Anglia alone was roughly forty million. Now that must have been some spectacle.