First Words

When churches fly like starlings

The birds fly without a designated leader. It takes them about 50 milliseconds to reach consensus.

One of the first bits of instruction in driv­er’s education is to keep two eyes on the road. I’ve never forgotten that early wisdom  and am alive in part because I’ve kept the most urgent rules of the road. But when driving for hours across vast expanses of Illinois farmland, which I do multiple times a month these years, I am, I confess, sometimes distracted. Some­times I look up at the sky as much as I look down at the road.

Starlings are the reason. When a flock of starlings gathers up in formation, it’s an avian air show that’s hard to ignore. Thousands of these tiny birds flock together, swooping, dipping, and climbing in graceful uniformity. The sudden swelling or contracting of a flock is one of the most fascinating phenomena known to nature. Birders refer to these amazing shape-shifting flight maneuvers as murmuration. To my eyes, these synchronized movements look like a magic carpet rippling and rolling through the sky, sometimes even obscuring the sunlight when the flock is large.

As I observe the undulating coordination of these small black birds in flight, the musical term legato comes to mind. A legato passage in a musical score has a curved line above the phrase to indicate that it is to be sung or played in flowing manner. The job of the musician is to smoothly connect each note with the next, avoiding any and all space between them. I never mastered legato tonguing in my horn-playing years. Separating the notes proved easier than connecting them, which is probably why an orchestra never called me up.