Murmuration: a great cloud of birds that fly in orchestrated formations

As a lover of the Belted Kingfisher, I admit to a little straying to another bird as gregarious as the kingfisher is solitary. I’m having a flirtation with the murmurations of Bohemian Waxwings over Missoula, Montana.

There, on the University of Montana campus, I saw them –not a handful, not a hundred, but more than a thousand waxwings in a torrent of aerial synchronicity. The flock converged to form a cornucopia of winged beating hearts, then scattered like wind-driven ashes, only to mingle again. I watched with yearning as they whisked away over library and clocktower, over students inside classrooms, over bare-limbed maples and cottonwoods, and vanished into the frosty February air.

Bohemian Waxwing flight (Click for photo source)

How is it possible for the birds not to bump a wing and fall from the sky? What might we learn from their way of living in such close companionship? Delving into what scientists have discerned about murmurations of birds–starlings, waxwings, and sandpipers–I am struck by one necessity.

There is no leader–no pastor, mayor, governor, or president. Instead, each individual maneuvers in ways that keep this close community in a communion. The brilliant choreography arises from every bird in a state of hyper-awareness.

Bohemian Waxwing (photo by David M. Bell, Macauley Library)

If I were one waxwing among the multitudes, I’d keep just enough distance to avoid a collision, while my quickening wingbeats coalesce with the flock’s forward momentum. But that’s not all. To fly in a flock is to be aware of the direction and speed of the entire group or I’d splinter away from the whole. My vision would have to be exceptional. Unlike the kingfisher, a predatory bird with forward-facing eyes, a waxwing has eyes on the side of his or her head–the better for spotting a peregrine falcon and keeping track of fellow flyers.

I know there are practical reasons for this aerial entanglement of Bohemian Waxwings– this dynamic knotting and unknotting into hypnotic patterns in the sky. There’s safety in numbers from predators and especially on migrations from Canada’s boreal forests south to the northern tier states. By sticking close together, they also can hone in on trees bearing the most fruits. Sharing information is efficient and energy-saving.

Yet, I also believe the waxwings teach us a way of living with one another–of holding up every person in a neighborhood without judgment, ranking, or partisanship. If we lived this way, we would honor individuality and creative expression within a heightened sensitivity of our common humanity and our common fate.

I am a bit wistful writing these words, yet I take heart from the spontaneous flocking of youth climate activists who are brave and shaping a new paradigm with roots in the tenets of indigenous peoples–of a gift economy with reciprocity. I feel their energy like the restless beauty of waxwing flocks and I want to find my place in the freshening gusts of their voices.

A couple days after reveling in the waxwing choreography on campus, I witnessed a more intimate scene among skeletal cottonwoods and the loden greens of ponderosas by Rattlesnake Creek. Bohemian Waxwings poured from the highest limbs of a tree like a slow-motion waterfall. Then, they ascended vertically in a crescendo of high-pitched keening notes–only to filter down upon the same perches. In the light cast through catbird-gray clouds, I could not see the brilliance of each bird, except for flashes of daffodil yellow in their tail tips–so like the Cedar Waxwing, except for the cinnamon undertail coverts.

Returning home to Bend from my brief foray to Missoula, I feel a little like a migratory bird, knowing I will always hold two places close to my heart–Oregon and Montana. This time, I carry with me a sense of lightness, as if I could be buoyed up in the air by a thousand wings, even as I flap mine to hold up others. In my journal the morning after seeing the birds on campus I wrote this poem:

Outside the Classroom…

Pluming across campus
Bohemian waxwings
a thousand strong
winnow the winds

in a precision
unrivaled by all who
study physics while
tucked into cubicles

Like a streaming comet
An unerring tornado
The rambling birds
emerge and merge

No wings touching
Every bird elevated
A kinetic synergy of
avian classmates aloft


Bohemian Waxwings as well as their relatives–Cedar Waxwings–have known to get a bit tipsy when berries ferment! (This photo by hoan luong is licensed under Creative Commons).
For those who can see the video (on my blog website ), here is what I tried to capture of the waxwings pouring down only to rise again and land–by Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula.