Friday, October 24, 2008

Starlings Over Africa: Wisdom in Flight


This past week in a sermon I gave Politics, Faith, and Wisdom I spoke of starlings and how they might have things to teach we humans, especially in this time of elections, turmoil, war, economic uncertainty, and the hardship and strife for those caught in the web of life. After the service one man came up to me and said, "one individual starling is just about the most beautiful thing on earth, in a flock though they are pests and of great concern."

I thought how true for our own species as well. In Darfur atrocities continue, a swarm of oppression, anger, hurt, and devastation has descended upon these peoples. African culture and people are immensely wondrous, for they are the holders of our ancient roots. Roots of beauty, and roots that feed upon the suffering of others. People harming people and now the starlings have descended upon them.


         Earth week in late September (( reports:

"Sudan’s troubled Darfur region has received another blow to its stability — this time

from an invasion of starlings, known locally in Arabic as zarzur. The Sudanese daily

Alray Alaa’m

reports that large flocks of the winged pests have descended upon South

Darfur State, destroying crops and threatening to bring even more acute food shortages

and higher prices. A spokesman for the Sudanese Revolutionary Front said government

neglect had allowed the bird invasion, but stated that his forces would not interfere with

any airplanes dispatched to combat the birds with aerial spraying."


The starlings tell us of what we are doing not just to each other, but to our earth. Flocks increase in size, some say due in part to climate change. The starlings used to go further south before Roman winters warmed up. Now they overwhelm parts of our urban and rural landscapes throughout the world, as do the human counterparts. Each of us is so beautiful, but in great numbers, what are we to do with ourselves? Is the final answer that we are to be feared as a dark, voracious multitude with violence or despair as the only answer?


I believe that we can find beauty in the darkest hour, in the most complex unnerving paradox. A swirling flock may wreak havoc upon the land, and can also inspire gratitude for the chaotic interconnection in which we dwell. Starling flocks, "murmurations," whisper to us, coaxing out our wisdom, much as they did in ages past when people studied flocks in an art called augury that sought meaning in the patterns of bird flight.


A flock of European starlings over Africa swirls and moves as one. When a predatory hawk or falcon attacks the group, they scatter only to regroup once again, undulating nearly as one organism so perfect is their flight – no one bird hits another and there is not one bird in control. Instead they each follow simple rules – stay to the center as much as possible, stay 2-3 bird lengths away from the next bird, don’t hit another bird, and get away from the hawk.

Our rules can be simple too. Go into the heart of understanding, to the center of where beauty and joy lay. But don’t stay fixated on that center, there really is no center of truth. It’s constantly moving as more and more different people enter our communities and realm of influence. With every new stranger encountered get as close as possible to the other, but not too close. Don’t hit them and do no harm, but stay engaged with who they are. We do this by listening and paying attention to where the other is. We don’t hole up year round in our homes or our nesting sites, but join another in public. Our greatest hope as humans is to build a public life where we don’t try to get away from uncomfortable conversations that create chaotic energy beyond our control. Instead we stick together, undeniably free and beautiful on our own, and ever more powerful and wise together, and only together. In this way we may avoid the hawk of desire that plagues us, and in turn not ourselves be a plague upon the planet.

May it be so.

Fly free and blessed be.


Picture Credits:

Individual starling:


NY starlings:


African Starlings -

Starling Tree:

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