Sunday, 16 November 2014

A murmuration about birding words

The fanciful word “murmuration” means the act of murmuring, complaining or grumbling. Ultimately derived from Latin, it is first known in English from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which The Parson’s Tale (c.1390) includes a sentence beginning,“After bakbitynge [backbiting] cometh grucchynge [grouching] or murmuracioun . . .”.

For more than 500 years, the word has also been used as a collective noun for the Starling. It first appeared with this meaning in The Book of St Albans of 1486, an assortment of essays on hunting, hawking, fishing and heraldry. An appendix to the hunting section, written by St Albans prioress Dame Juliana Barnes, gives a gallimaufry of group names, including murmuration of starlings, gaggle of geese, parliament of rooks and exaltation of larks.

Few of these collective terms have remained in common use. Most are either long-forgotten or employed only pretentiously or jokily. But murmuration is different from the rest in that it has now acquired a precise, practical application. Instead of being found only as a jocular tetrasyllabic alternative to “flock”, murmuration has been used in recent years specifically to describe the spectacular aerobatic displays that large flocks of starlings treat us to on autumnal evenings before they settle down to roost at dusk.

By back-formation from this new usage, we now also have the verb “to murmurate”, meaning to engage in murmuration or to gather together for murmuration. You will not yet find the verb in any dictionary but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before it is accepted.

I do not mind “murmuration” being used in this new and more functional way, but I do tend to engage in disgrunted murmuration about the way wildlife commentators are now abusing another birding word — fledge. If you believe the BBC’s Springwatch team you will think that a young bird fledges by taking its first flight away from the nest. No, it doesn’t. That definition is not in any dictionary. 

For hundreds of years, the verb fledge has related not to the action of leaving the nest but to the acquisition of the strong wing feathers that will sooner or later allow the young bird to take its first flight. There is always an interval between fledging and flying, since the fledgling (as it can now be called, rather than a nestling) needs to spend time exercising its wings and building up muscle strength before it can finally fly the nest. This may take many days in the case of some larger species.

By misapplying the word fledge to the bird’s first flight, Springwatch has devalued its centuries-old original meaning. The word first appeared in Middle English, when it simply meant feathered, and is derived ultimately from the Old English root word flycge, meaning “having feathers, or fit to fly” — fit to fly, but not necessarily flying.

By the way, and getting back to murmurations, no one knows why Starlings gather in huge flocks to perform their aerial ballets. It may be to attract other Starlings to join them and increase the size of the flock, either because large numbers confuse potential predators or because roosting in dense flocks helps Starlings to keep warm overnight. If you have seen a recent murmuration and want to help with murmuration research, you may wish to complete a Society of Biology survey here.