Not a Sound of Silence

Moments ago the ol’ ticker about stopped when Joe Pye, our lovable “red” dog of dubious lineage, flushed both a rooster and hen pheasant during our prairie walk. Though expected, since this seems to happen daily, being startled has become an anticipated part of the trek.

This is much the same sensation you have when watching a pop up toaster, or even a jack-in-the box you might actually be winding. You know instinctively that the toast is going to jump from the bread bays, and that the clown is going to pop up from the lid. Same with Joe Pye … somewhere, and you know not where, he will flush a pheasant. And, each time I will jump, startled at the sudden flush and rush of wings.

Otherwise, our walks are usually somewhat quiet.

This is said with a bit of a wink, especially in the spring and fall when the nearby wetlands are seemingly teeming with geese and ducks. Almost any time of the early morning through a near darkness at night, hearing the geese are part of what makes living here so precious.
10.29.15 murmuration5b.w
Yesterday, though, was different. Our walk wasn’t quiet. And, this time the geese weren’t the culprits. This was not a sound of silence, for a horde of thousands of “black birds” made our grove come alive as a temporary home for a murmuration. The murmur was not unlike that of a stadium of people. Back in my journalism days when assigned to cover one of the professional sports teams, it was fun to get to the stadiums early before the crowds arrived. Having that sense of sound that rises from an eerie quietness to a loud murmur of thousands of voices in constant conversation was simply part of the experience. The closer to the start of the game, the louder the murmur. It was a welcomed part of the anticipation and experience.
10.29.15 murmuration12b.w
At some point during the day yesterday, as the indeterminate black birds rose from the nearby harvested corn field and our prairie to the tree tops, always in a huge scrum that never seemed to end, it dawned on me why these events are called murmurations. That definition, or description, was as much a mystery to me as the bird gatherings themselves. Like the voices in a stadium, or even in an empty room that fills during a party, no one voice really stands out … just that steady hum of murmuring conversations. It was the same on our farmstead.

Walking around between the orchard and the yard taking pictures and simply watching in wonder as they flew about, then later watching a small sampling of them in the tree adjacent to my studio, you could sense a feeling of anticipation and excitement within the small groups and individual birds. Never perching for very long, the birds seemed alternately “peep” or strained to watch the flights overhead … before bolting off into the air to become one of the uncountable.
10.29.15 murmuration16b.wa
We shared our treetops for a few hours, and no matter where you took refuge, either here in the office, at the kitchen sink behind the huge picture window, standing quietly in the orchard, or hiding in the studio, it seemed that in whatever direction you looked there was a stream of birds in flight. In all directions, at differing heights, coming from various points from the corn field or prairie to any one of the numerous tree “islands” we have here on the farm.
10.29.15 murmuration17b.w1
This wasn’t among the largest murmurations I’ve seen, and conversations with people my age or older who lived on the prairie when it had more of its natural prairie pothole beginnings and before mass ditching and tiling, they tell of murmurations so thick with black birds that the sky was blotted out. Sometimes you will see a murmuration that will give you a hint of those days. One was just down the road near the Meadowbrook corner, and the other was on a brutal and cold New Year’s Day when Erlend Langbach, our Norwegian exchange student back in 1998, and I went fly fishing for walleyes in the tail waters of the Churchill dam … when we looked up to see a virtual umbrella of geese in the sky above Lac qui Parle Lake as far as one could see. A hum of honking provided an eerie accompaniment. What an incredible moment in nature.
10.29.15 murmuration8b.w
Later on my afternoon here on the farm, after doing some research, I again ventured outside to add another coat of paint on some barn doors I’ve been building. I was struck by an instant difference, like Richard Bratigan wrote about in his poem, Wind, when lovers looked at one another when facing a sudden silence and one asked, “What was that?” “The wind,” came an answer. Yes, I was stuck by a sudden silence. No murmur. Just the sound of the prairie wind. The birds were gone. This “Hitchcockian moment” had vanished, as suddenly and realistically as it had mysteriously appeared.

We witness murmurations in various parts of our Big Stone Lake neighborhood every fall, with some streams of birds stretching for miles it seems. As you drive down a gravel road, hundreds if not thousands will blanket the gravel far ahead of you … with all rising as if on cue as you near, an avian poem threading as feathered waves, this way and that, away from a hurrying danger, all so close, yet none seem to collide or even come close to touching in choreographed chaos.

From the Treesb.w

That choreographed chaos is just one of many mysteries. How can they fly like that without mass genocide? Yet, where do they all come from? How do they know where to congregate? Are there “generals” in the huge flocks that determine when and where to fly? Why would a flock choose our farm, or our neighbor’s across the section, or the savanna down by the Meadowbrook corner? And, what caused them to suddenly decide to go, to leave behind a farm so suddenly silent?

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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