Michael Ellis: Flocking

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Whether he’s in far-off lands or his own backyard, Michael Ellis is, and long has been, an avid birdwatcher.

I have been bird watching since I was a late teen. Back then it was definitely one of the nerdiest things a young person could do. Think Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace. But when I arrived in the Bay Area in 1977, I found my tribe! Here there were (and are) many cool nature nerds an oxymoron, I know. And during this pandemic, many stay-at-homers have discovered the joys of backyard birding.

There are, of course, many ways to enjoy our feathered friends. To begin one has to look very carefully and patiently to identify them. Then discovering the name, they do feel like a friend. But there is also just the aesthetics of witnessing birds, especially when they flock.

There are several kinds of flocks — huge numbers of geese soaring up, then descending into frosty fields, the classic V-shaped formation of pelicans, and the mass surface movements of shearwaters. But my guilty pleasure is the murmuration of non-native European starlings.

Eugene Schieffelin founded the Acclimatization Society, a group of enthusiastic Shakespeare lovers who wanted to introduce into the U.S. every bird mentioned in the Bard's plays. Eugene and his buddies released 60 starlings into Central Park in 1890. These birds took to this country with enthusiasm and reproductive vigor. Now there’s 200 million and they have wreaked havoc in many ecosystems.

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Every winter, especially in vineyard and other ag areas, starlings come together in dynamic and coordinated movements of huge disk-shaped clusters. Early researchers assumed that there was a leader that the group was following. But when the assemblage was videotaped it became clear that there was no top bird, murmuration is a feature of the entire group. They behave as a super organism, probably to avoid predators.

Truly, I am enchanted by the starlings’ mesmerizing shape shifting but I am equally enthralled by that native oak titmouse and house finch at my feeder.

Birdwatching is cool, welcome to my tribe ‘er make that flock.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist living in Santa Rosa.