For people old enough to remember analog televisions, TV static meant the end of the broadcast day. Even the late night infomercials were done. Night had come, and TV viewers were truly alone. In horror movies, TV static is a shorthand for impending doom. Evil spirits speak to little kids through TV static. When the TV switches on by itself and tunes itself to that static-filled place between stations, you know that scary creatures are about to come crawling out of the set. A staticky television screen is a portal to the unknown — and the dangerous.
So when the skies over Rome, Italy suddenly transformed into a seething mass of black and gray, it was no wonder people became frightened.
For those who have never seen television static, here is what we are talking about:
No, Really, What Is That?
No, it’s not the end of the world, but rather something that’s been happening in different places for hundreds of thousands of years. That day, people looking up at the Roman skies were seeing a murmuration of starlings.
Starlings are a type of songbird, and a murmuration is a huge number of them. How many? Up to four million returning to Rome every year, by some estimates. And when they come, they can literally block out the sun.
Four million birds may sound like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. But the real danger is what they leave behind. Guano falls from the skies, collecting everywhere. In fact, every October, residents of Rome grab their umbrellas and brace themselves for storms of starling poop. And it’s only getting worse.
In a city that’s already pretty grotty, the Italian paper La Stampa started declaring the starlings’ return a public menace back in 2016. Apparently, the government’s earlier bird scaring methods have fallen victim to austerity measures. Gone are the sonic devices that drive away the starlings with intolerable noise. The starling eating falcons the city once employed have lost their funding as well. As a result, cars skid along streets slick with starling guano, windows become murky, and citizens of Rome are reduced to carrying umbrellas, even on sunny days, in case of a surprise attack.
But They’re Not All Bad
But the diminutive starling isn’t all menace and poo. A starling murmuration, seen from a distance, can be a beautiful sight. Indeed, it’s a sight that still continues to baffle scientists. How do literally hundreds of thousands of birds work together to create such complex patterns of collective movement?
A starling murmuration is like a collective ballet. It’s a shape-shifting cloud — a group of individuals creating complex, ever-changing patterns as if they were a single being. It’s mesmerizing.
Murmurations occur most often in the evening, as the starlings settle down to roost. Scientists believe it’s an evasive behavior, as it’s often triggered by a predator, such as a hawk. There is safety in numbers, and it’s very hard to pick out an individual from a swirling, massive cloud that moves as one. There is no one bird leading the movement. Rather individuals all react to the behavior of the birds around them. This results in an unpredictable collective movement that confuses predators.
So the next time you think the sky is falling, look up! It may just be a murmuration of starlings. All the same, best to grab your umbrella, just to be safe.
Featured image is CC0, via Pexels.