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Starlingo ii [grounded expositions w/10° of pitch]: 43 more murmurating starmaps under the auspices of a babeling language & in-flight communication manual

<«> ii.i. The thing about the language of birds is that we can never explain in words, but nevertheless we try. The same is true of our own kind. This series of 43 interstitial non-sequiturs follows from the unadulterated starlingo i. </»>

Mussolini typewriter

starlings striking a supine-Picasso-mermaid pose over la «macchina da scrivere»

<«> ii.ii. By «starlingo» i mean non-oral in-flight communication formations. </>
           if aural </>
                    then murmurs of murmurations </>
           if anything </>
                    else goto ii.xvii. </»>

crossed communication

crossed wires i

<«> ii.iii. From late october to mid-december, or so, swarms of starlings take roosting refuge in Rome, presumably en route from their summer northern European breeding grounds to warmer wintering lands in north Africa. Over the past two years (and a few other times when visiting Rome in november) it's become ritual & habitual for me to observe the starlings every evening at sunset. </»>


forming a linear wired score

<«> ii.iv. This year the highest concentration of starlings seems to be conveniently clustered over our house, so all i have to do is step outside our door between 4:30 & 5:00. Even if i don't go outside i can feel their presence (their shadows rippling & swooping down, beckoning). & then when i close my eyes to sleep i still see their lingering traces in my field of vision. </»>



twilight over-exposure

<«> ii.v. This 2011 season is waning, but the formations they've etched in my brain remain. Not to mention video footage & almost 2,000 photos from this year alone on my hard drive. (And then there's last year & 2009 & 2008 ...). </»>

ledger tart

clustering from the eaves of the vault

<«> & strangely, looking now back on that entry from 2008, right below the photo of ponte Rotto, the exact spot where i took the majority of these photos, in reference to the muddy river & brothers Rom- & Rem- & Markus i said: «... it only seems natural that we will one day move the Calamari headquarters to the banks of the Tiber.» And here we are a few years later. Destiny or positive visualization? A strange attractor perhaps, luring me? </»>


formations forming over ponte Cestio & Tiber island

<«> ii.vii. & it's funny, because now when i stand on this spot overlooking the 2153-year old ponte Rotto i wonder why all the tourists bumping by me are busy taking photos of the bridge when the real spectacle, happening always in the now, is in the sky. </»>


spectators witnessing the spectacle (from Ponte Garibaldi)

<«> ii.viii. Speaking of inexplicable in-flight communications, the final words recovered from the black box of Air France 447 say it all:
    02:14:23 (Robert) Putain, on va taper... C'est pas vrai!
      > Damn it, we're going to crash... This can't be happening!
    02:14:25 (Bonin) Mais qu'est-ce que se passe?
     >But what's happening?
    02:14:27 (Captain) 10 degrès d'assiette...
     > Ten degrees of pitch...
    >Exactly 1.4 seconds later, the cockpit voice recorder stops. </»>


conflicting crossed communications

<«> ii.ix. If you ask me, the communication breakdown was induced by the St. Elmo's Fire they witnessed just before. That & they apparently didn't understand what «stall» meant, being French speakers. Not to make light of the situation. </»>

aginst the grain

seagull going against the grain

<«> ii.x. Starlings were blamed for a 1960 civilian crash in Boston that killed 62 & a 1996 military cargo plane crash that killed 34 in the Netherlands. And on November 10, 2008 in Rome (a few days after our visit) a Boeing 737 hit a flock of starlings as it was landing, taking out both engines & necessitating a crash landing. </»>

gull agog

seagull over the synagogue

<«> ii.xi. It's hard to pinpoint what it is that is so alluring about these birds that most Romans dismiss as annoying & loud pests that shit all over the cars & their nice clothes. Even in America they have been given official pest status (meaning its okay to kill them) & are considered one of the most damaging & evasive species ever introduced anywhere. And you have Shakespeare to blame for this—when the American Acclimatization Society took it upon themselves to introduce every songbird ever mentioned by Shakespeare to America (so the Brits would feel more at home) & druggist from the society let some 80 loose in Central Park (& now there are almost as many starlings as 'Americans' in North America—both equally evasive & annoying, but starlings only have 'American' humans to blame for being there in the first place). </»>


the introduction comes after the fact

<«> ii.xii. The Shakespearean passage to blame? Henry IV, part 1, 1:3, where Hotspur says (in scheming to his brother-in-law on how to drive King Henry crazy): «Nay, I will; that's flat: / He said he would not ransom Mortimer; / Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer; / But I will find him when he lies asleep, / And in his ear I'll holla 'Mortimer!' / Nay, / I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak / Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him / To keep his anger still in motion.» </»>

light swoon

in light of punctuation signs

<«> ii.xiii. The only person i know as equally as obsessed with starlings as me is John Olson, whose prose poem Starlings i not only included in issue 0.875 of Sleepingfish but in his 2006 book The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat. Though, perhaps veiled in sarcastic wit, Olson's obsession qualifies more as seething hatred. Beyond the typical reasons given, Olson calls starlings humorless & grouchy, claims that, «Everything they do they do in a spirit of propagation. But propagation to no purpose other than propagation.» </»>


electricity & magnetism

starlings collapsing into their potential vector field

<«> ii.xiv. It is precisely this 'spirit of propagation' which i find so compelling. Not just propagation in a biological sense, but there's an underlying message they seem hell-bent on communicating, whether it be in their babbling vocalizations, their murmurations or their scatological smatterings (i.e. see the car at the beginning of this post). Yes, shit as communication. Hey, if Pollock can call it art, why can't they? So, stooping to a whole nether level, i placed pieces of paper under the trees they were roosting in (on Tiber island) & exposed them overnight in much the way you'd expose photographic paper in a darkroom. The results were not exactly as glamorous as i expected, but nevertheless i'll show them here to spare anyone else the trouble who has ever been curious to try this. [Part of the problem is that their poop is white so it doesn't show up on white paper, so i also tried it with black paper, see # ii.xxxiii. below] </»>

staring shit painting

starling scat sample (collected in the name of art, so you don't have to)

<«> ii.xv. This spirit of propagation is really no different than humans, except starlings have no egos, just one big collective ID that must communicate at all costs. This nervous anxiety, this frenzy to communicate is reminiscent of what's becoming of our popular culture in the age of the internet. In a post on HTML Giant this morning, Jimmy Chen writes: «The desire to convey something is often greater than our ability to create something, so we transfer imagery and meaning among hands, which is the internal logic of the facebook share, tumblr reblog, and twitter retweet. Curation is the new content.» </»>


curating fleeting communications

<«> ii.xvi. Are humans capable of becoming one faceless flock or will we never be able to shed the idea of ego from our gene pool? </»>


lone crow amidst it all

<«> ii.xvii. European starlings have the opposite problem, they are true social animals, akin to bees or ants. But on their own are they capable of communication, at least beyond sheer mimicry? If you are as curious as me, you can google around youtube & find a plethora of examples of 'talking starling' videos, the creepiest though is this one, by Damar: </»>


<«> ii.xviii. If you ask me this goes way beyond mimicry—this shit is supernatural. If I knew humans capable of such vocal delivery, i would go to more poetry readings. People might say Damar is mimicking when (at 0:05) he says: «don't let it be discovered by someone scarier» 
or at 0:12: «really?! don't be so whipped by creepy scum»
or at 0:18: «scary, your hands are shaky, my head too moss.» (followed by down-right sinister laugh)
& then (at 0:24): «Neighbors, she's being kissed by Damar.». Damar being his name, which he repeats at perfectly punctuated intervals lest we forget.
At 1:04 he expresses loathing self-deprecation: «I hate Damar. What do you say that's taken, my head's too big? Astronaut, she says, alright? [said in voice of Jesse of Breaking Bad]. I exaggerate.»
You can't make this shit up. </»>

<«> ii.xix. Or in the above video a starling named Pepper says: «hi sweetheart, can you pick us up from the truck a chicken melt? Don't be such a martyr. Don't say neighbor. Look at you—you're so gay. Hi!» Of course most of the time the starlings are programmed to say things like «give us a kiss, kiss» but this babbling mimicry is only a reflection of the stupidity of their 'owners'. Surely, their potential is seemingly infinite for such a little brain. </»>

cloudy reception

murmurations clogging our communication receptors

<«> ii.xx. But this post is not so much about aural/oral communication as visual communication. Or miscommunication. The sounds they make is a whole nother story. We can hear them a block away through closed shutters. I recorded some of it & mixed it in with music by Wild Dog Creek & put it to this composite video of the starlings in motion: </»>

<«> ii.xxi. There's more where that came from, in fact i've amassed a playlist worth of starling murmuration videos at this point. To what end? That remains to be seen. Bird is the word. </»>

chariots of birds

dome-vaulted density

<«> ii.xxii. In his Starling poem, John Olson has the audacity to call their murmurations 'banal'. Despite, or in spite of, this, the starling murmurations have been getting a lot of press these past few years, most recently for swooping down & taking the breath away of those Irish girls in a canoe. </»>

bush of ghosts

trees bleeding into birds (see also, leaves becoming starlings & fly away)

<«> ii.xxiii. And there's been a lot of discussion & speculation & modeling about why starlings do what they do in the sky & what we can learn from it (see the StarFLAG project). I won't get into all these theories, except to say IMHO it all boils down to communication. Not just for social interaction (one of 4 functions proposed in the Collective Animal Behavior wiki entry), but for communicating data. Not that i don't agree with the other functions, but communication is at the root of at least what i'm interested in. It's not that different, really, than humans meeting after work in a pub & chatting about how their day went—only with starlings it's more on a mass, anonymous scale. </»>

double horse

dragon nodes forming over the typewriter's flanking chariots

<«> ii.xxiv. And just like with pub-speak, beyond just idle unwinding at the end of the day, valuable information is likely exchanged. Starlings fly next to each other & scope out their neighbors, gauging who flies well, who looks healthy, glossy—who looks like they ate well that day. They stick with those birds & follow them to whatever tree they are roosting in, so that the next day when they take off they are positioned to follow these birds. The frenzied density happens as everyone tries to cluster & follow closer & closer to the most popular/successful birds. Sound familiar? </»>

branching in

returning to the roost after determining their in crowd

<«> ii.xxv. This in-flight communication is visual, but i think there's also an audible component to it. For anyone that's been close enough to one of these swooping flocks (& as you can hear when the birds swoop down over the Irish girls in the canoe) there is a very distinct sound to the murmurations. I can hear it even inside in our house when they are hundreds of feet above. You can only imagine what it must be like to be them, inside the swooping flock, as it's happening. </»>


sublimating paths

<«> ii.xxvi. Unless of course this is all in my overactive imagination. Besides being fortunate enough to have seen starling murmurations, i consider myself fortunate to have witnessed the aurora borealis up near the arctic circle—which is strangely reminiscent, but with living birds instead of charged particles. One unexpected thing that struck me about the aurora borealis is the sound it gave off—like a swooshing whistling with static crackling. It was only afterwards that i read that no sound is given off by the aurora borealis—none that has ever been recorded. The sound is all in your head—the electromagnetic waves physically stimulate auditory nerves to give the sensation of sound (in the same way overstimulated ears "ring" in complete silence). </»>

still born

a tornado of communication

<«> ii.xxvii. Not that starlings give off an electric field, but seeing such borealic display is enough to induce sound in this head. The times when the starlings swoop low enough, you can hear the collective swooshing & rustling of feathers & then when you see them high up, out of audible range, it's almost like you project the sound to the motion. But this is us on the ground, you can only imagine how intense this experience must be to starlings in the midst of it. </»>


seagulls as starling herders/art lovers

<«> ii.xxviii. One of the prevailing explanations as to this flocking behavior has to do with predation, for the same reason sardines form bait balls—to confuse & disorient predators in pursuit. If you're a fast & agile bird you try to stick to the middle of the flock so the worse fliers get picked off. In Rome, there's definitely seagulls chasing the starlings around in the sky (two of them seen in the above photo) but not once have i seen one catch a starling. At times it seems they come close enough (see below), but they never attempt to capture them, that i've ever seen. I'm wondering if seagulls follow the flocks because they are art lovers, because they want to share in whatever rush the starlings are experiencing? We think it's cool, imagine what it must be like to witness such a display almost within the same reference frame? </»>

quasi caught

close but no cigar

<«> ii.xxix. I'm not sure where i'm going with all this—all these photos & videos & speculation. I think of it as data collection, but i'm not sure what the data is for. I'm doing an experiment with no theory to prove. Information for the sake of information. If any of this is useful for you experiments or theories, have at it. </»>

light never goes out

in forming in the last remaining light

<«> It occurred to me a few weeks ago that there might be a book in all this. And being that the next Calamari press book (after Sister Stop Breathing, which is now at the printers) will be authorless, it only makes sense that this book would not only be authorless, but titleless. Or at maximum: [untitled] by Sturnus Vulgaris (so it could be catalogued by the likes of Amazon). But the rest of the book would be pure starling graphemic language (with possibly a few interjections by sea gulls or crows). </»>

synagoogling snake

starling collective as a sea-dragon

<«> ii.xxxi. Or it could be the first book authored by an entire species—at least by the transient Roman population of Sturnus Vulgaris that nomadically resides along the banks of the Tiber. Sturnus Tiberinus. But of course this wordless & titleless & authorless book would die a lonely death because people wouldn't know what to make of it. Most people get uncomfortable with things expressed in a way they weren't expecting. People for the most part need to be told what to think, in a linear familiar fashion. That it's okay to like something. </»>

starling skyline

auguring over Rome

<«> ii.xxxii. I was reading somewhere—in relation to the safety in numbers theory of flocking—that if you take an individual fish or bird out of the flock, it's heart rate physically goes up & it freaks out, panics. It's not itself. In this sense it doesn't make sense to study a single starling outside the context of the flock. A single starling is a grapheme—meaningless outside the context of flocking rituals. </»>

dead starling

the only image of an individual starling i've ever captured up close
[besides the glossy & superb starlings in Kenya but those are different species/stories]

<«> ii.xxxiii. The same is true of their audible expressions when caged alone like in the videos above. It's frenzied babble which will never make sense to us & probably doesn't make sense to other starlings or even itself. But what they are saying to each other, in the comfort of their own environment, is a whole different story. </»>

starling scat sample

auguring birdshit [& regurgitated cud] on black paper

<«> ii.xxxiv. Being in Rome adds a whole nother dimension to all this. Everyone knows the story of how Romus & Remulus were found by a she-wolf (with the help of Tiberinus) after they were abandoned in a basket on the Tiber. But it was the birds that brought Romus to power. Every decision back then was made after consulting augurs or auspices who interpreted the will of god by studying the flight patterns of birds. Romus & Remulus were themselves augurs, so when it came time to duke it out over their shared city, Romulus went up on the Palatine hill & Remus went up the Aventine hill & they "took the auspices" (Romulus being declared the winner by whatever arbitrary standard). In my opinion, the Aventine hill (just above Ponte Rotto) is the better place to view/augur the birds (the first image in this post & a few of the others were taken from that vantage.) </»>

3-layered burrito

seagulls as auguring starling herders

<«> ii.xxxv. Funny to think that this city could've just as easily been named «REMA» instead of ROMA. So many people come to Rome to look at things ruined, long dead, inanimate, laced with neglect & defeat. But what fascinates me is to imagine all the water that has continuously flowed through the banks of the Tiber over all these years, or to think that ancestors of these very starlings once engaged in the same behavior over Rome & were augured by the likes of Romulus & Remus. These are the the things that make Rome the eternal city.

gull church

umbrellation #35

<«> ii.xxxvi. In the same way that honey-guides mesmerize honey-badgers to get sloppy-seconds, you have to wonder if we are being 'murmurized' by starlings. Like they are hypnotizing & leading us to a log full of honey. Like they are unveiling the very code that brought them into being, for us to 'augur,' to base decisions on, to use in our own blueprints, in urban planning, in modeling the stock market, in art. </»>

lighthouse pines

sounding over the gianicolo lighthouse & umbrella pines

<«> ii.xxxvii. Is context everything? According to this Science article [Rational Choice, Context Dependence, and the Value of Information in European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris)]: «Both human and nonhuman decision-makers can deviate from optimal choice by making context-dependent choices. Because ignoring context information can be beneficial, this is called a “less-is-more effect.” </»>


modeling choice

<«> ii.xxxviii. The murmurations also remind me of the probability clouds used to model atomic orbitals in quantum mechanics. Their trajectories are like bubble chambers. Starlings are channeling primal laws of the natural world, making them visible to everyone else. </»>

mime sweeper

<«> ii.xxxix. Not only do i see vectors in their flight patterns but each birds feathers are vectors that mimic the flying patterns they create. & the same murmuration can look completely different to someone else from a different location, at a different banking angle & as the starlings bank & swerve these patterns emerge elsewhere at other angles. just like to view a rainbow, you need to be standing with the sun behind you looking up at 42° angle into a cloud. It's presumptuous (but human nature) to think everyone sees what you see. </»>


ornithological alignment

<«> ii.xxxx. For some reason the word 'Babylon' kept popping into my head while writing this post. I found myself wondering if 'Babylon' has anything to with 'babel' (perhaps the location of the Tower of Babel?). </»>

synagog spiraling forth

starlings streaming out of the synagogue

<«> ii.xxxxi. In looking up the etymology, «In the Hebrew Bible, the name appears as בָּבֶל (Babel; Tiberian בָּבֶל Bavel), interpreted in the Book of Genesis (11:9) to mean "confusion" (viz. of languages), from the verb בלבל bilbél, "to confuse".» </»>

twin tower

from the synagogue to the bell-tower

<«> ii.xxxxii. & Now i'm wondering if the etymology of "bible" lies in these same origins, something intended to confuse? </»>

swerve drive

trailing communication

<«> ii.xxxxiii. The final in-flight communication from commander Bowman (when he leaves Discovery to investigate the monolith): «The thing's hollow—It goes on forever—and—oh my God—it's full of stars!» </»>


starlings & moon



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