1. Starlings and Murmurations

Welcome to the first ever episode of Margins and Murmurations, the podcast!

What is a murmuration and what is it about starlings that I find so exciting? Join me for a chat about one of my favourite bird species, what they mean to me as an ecologist and community organiser and get some insights into my writing. Here’s to the starlings!

Also available on Spotify. RSS feed here.

Show notes

  • Starling inspired novels here
  • “The Seventh Starling – What do particle physics, statistics and poetry have in common?” article here
  • Avian sexual dichromatism. research article here and here: Cuthill, I., Bennett, A., Partridge, J. and Maier, E. (1999). Plumage reflectance and the objective assessment of avian sexual dichromatism. Am. Nat.  153,183-200.
  • “Starlings on prozac: How pharmaceuticals may affect wildlife.” article here
  • For more on genetics and debunking sexual selection: J. Roughgarden. (2004) Evolution’s Rainbow or here


Hi everyone. Welcome to the Margins and Murmurations podcast. I’m Kes Otter Lieffe and apparently I am making a podcast! Which feels quite unreal and I’m really excited. And what an amazing technology really – I’m sat here, in a field, outside the caravan I’m living in, surrounded by trees and kites and tiny little baby tree sparrows who I think might make an appearance on the audio and you’re somewhere else listening to this story and… ah! Amazing!
So yeah, thank you for finding this and listening and honouring me with your time. So the podcast is called Margins and Murmurations. I’m the author of the Margins trilogy and the first novel in the trilogy is called Margins and Murmurations. It’s an interesting title because one of the intentions I had with naming it, erm, was to bring certain images to people’s minds so even if they never picked up the book – and I never really expected many people to read the story really – erm, at least the title, they might just see in on a book shelf or something at their friend’s house and if they know what a murmuration is they might be like ‘oh right, that’s a thing’ and if they have no idea, maybe they would look it up on the internet or ask somebody and, yeah, learn about murmurations and starlings.

This first episode of the podcast is dedicated to starlings! And a group of starlings is a murmuration. So… why starlings? Why murmurations? What is it all about? I knew them very much when I grew up – they were around a lot, they were very common at that point. They’ve declined massively in Europe since I was a kid and they would come often to the bird table and to the garden and they were just, like, a very familiar species. And they’re super gorgeous with all this iridescent feathers and plumage and the spots that they sometimes have depending on the time of year and the age and this amazing song that I’ll talk about later and just… they’re really amazing. Erm… and one of the things they’re best known for is creating – is forming – murmurations. So a murmuration is basically this huge flock with a certain kind of behaviour specific to maintaining this flock, erm, where each starlings is kind of responding to the group and particularly, like, its seven neighbours. Erm, and they’re kind of moving around together and each one is yeah, paying attention and responding and the group is affecting the individual, the individual is affecting the group and there’s a whole kind of movement-building analogy there. I got to know them – I got to know the murmurations specifically – when I moved to Brighton which is in the south of the English coast. And, it’s a city, people are going about their day, they’ve maybe been at work and they, I don’t know, they’re going out, or maybe they’re already drunk on the beach or something. And then, suddenly, these huge murmurations of starlings would form, particularly over the old pier before it was burned down, which was kind of abandoned and left to the starlings. And they had formed, I think one of the largest populations of starlings at that time, in the UK. Maybe it was even the second largest population. And each night, depending on the weather, they would start flocking and form these incredible expanding and changing and moving balls of birds in the sky basically. There was a kind of magic there for me in that suddenly all these people in the city, going about their day, would pause. And watch. And just be reminded of non-human nature. And, you know, I’m the kind of person that – a little green bug can land on my leg and I can be enthralled for twenty minutes but not everyone experiences that, not everyone has the opportunity as well, but this was something so big, so spectacular, so mysterious – we don’t even know why it happens – that it would get the attention of a lot of people. People would talk about ‘ah, did you get to the beach, did you see the murmuration?’. It was at sunset, these incredible patterns of animals against the sun-setting-sky. I mean, it’s kind of an incredible thing really.

I love them so much, of course I wanted to bring them into the first novel ‘Margins and Murmurations’. They had to be in there somewhere, right? So there was a lot of research. Which is an interesting thing because it is a novel and so, according to, I don’t know, how publishing works, I wasn’t supposed to put in references. But maybe that’s what this podcast is, maybe this is the chance for me to be like, yes! I read this study and this study and here’s where this thing came from. It was a real thing – because I didn’t put references in the novel. Maybe I should. Maybe I should just ignore that rule. So yeah, particularly for the starlings, I read a lot about them and – yeah – anyway, I love them so I was excited to read about them. And yeah, you know I think there was a lot of talk about the proprioception where each individual is responding – as I was saying – to their neighbours and there’s, yeah, some very gorgeous metaphors in there of, like, belonging to a group and the individual affecting the group but the group leading the individual as well and I’m excited about all of that. I also feel like for me personally I need all the guidance I can get when it comes to community organising and movement building. I think I also worry sometimes that I don’t want to objectify starlings. And there’s something about perception there for me in that we don’t particularly know why it’s happening. Are they trying to stay warm and warm themselves up before they go to bed? Are they just having fun? Are they building social relations? There’s many theories, we don’t quite know – as far as I know. Maybe there’s some teachings there for us and that’s really nice. Also they’re doing something specific to them for their own reasons and their experience of it must be very different – up in the sky, being birds, in their flock. Compared to me, watching them from the beach, looking up at the sky. There was something I was reading recently also about perception. I mean, if you look closely at starlings, in general we can’t easily tell the males and the females apart visually. So we say that they don’t have sexual dichromatism. And what’s interesting about that is, you know, humans in general have a certain kind of vision using three cones in the eye and starlings, like most birds, have four meaning that they also have access to ultra-violet. And if you look a starling under ultra-violet light, there’s sexual dichromatism. The males and the females do not look the same. Maybe there’s some things there where they’re communicating things there within birds but keeping secrets from non-bird predators who don’t see UV if they’re mammalian. I feel like we’re always just finding out more. We’re like ‘oh yeah they must be doing this because it looks like that’ but they don’t even see that, they see something else entirely. So there’s something so gorgeous about these ever-expanding mysteries. With the UV thing, there’s a kestrel called Ernie – and anyone who’s read the book will get the reference. Ernie lives in the area where I’m living right now and, he’s a kestrel. He’s hunting every day. He’s hovering over the ground. And I was just reading that Ernie also has UV sight – well, I mean, according to the studies. I don’t know what he sees, but probably. And he’s probably perceiving lines criss-crossing the fields where I live which are lines of pee left by voles and mice and things that Ernie likes to eat. That’s really useful because then you know where the mouse went and maybe the mouse is still there at the end of the line and you can hunt the little mouse and get a snack. We can’t see that – I can’t see it – that’s amazing. So just all these amazing mysteries really.

Other things about starlings that I’d love to share with you. I was reading about their song and this is something, yeah, I used to live in Berlin – I live just outside Berlin now – and in Berlin I don’t see big murmurations just occasionally on a rooftop or something but not so much, not regularly. In general their populations have massively declined across Europe. Not so much where they’ve been introduced which is a different story. Sometimes I’ll be walking with a friend through the park or near the train station picking them up from the subway or something and, you know I’m really rude. I’m supposed to be listening to my friend, they’re telling me a story. And suddenly I’m totally distracted because I heard a click, or a ‘squee’ or a whistle sound and I’m like ‘oh there’s a starling somewhere’ and they’re like ‘what are you doing, I’m telling you a story!’ I’m like ‘no no wait wait, we have to find the starling!’ and yep, sure enough there will be a little group of starlings. In Berlin I often find them in some of the train stations, in the roof and they gather and they flock and return to their roost and sing together. They have this incredible capacity for building new songs and incorporating new sounds. And as I talk about in the novel, this might be a car alarm or someone’s phone or kids playing in the park. For them they’re just interesting sounds and they incorporate them into their repertoire to impress each other. And yeah, I guess the theory is the more songs you have, the sexier you are because, you know, you’re really smart and you’re working really hard and you’re learning all these songs. And so maybe if we reduce things to genetics – which I don’t always want to do – then maybe they’re really strong so they’re pass on better genes to the baby starlings.

And talking of baby starlings one of the other things I read recently about them is that the males are often building the nest and preparing the nest for the females to come and lay her eggs and raise the kids and the nests are usually somewhere in a crevice – in a roof, or the hole of a tree or something, usually somewhere dark. And they not only build a nest but they build a really nice nest. They’re even putting in nice smelling flowers and yarrow and other herbs. I’m also curious if they’re putting antibiotic herbs to keep everything clean. I didn’t read that, but I’m curious if it’s true. Because the female wants a nice house and she wants it to smell nice! That story has nothing to do with anything but I thought you should know.

And yeah, the last story about starlings that I wanted to share, that also shows up in the novel where I think Ash and Pinar are probably drinking some tea in the forest or something – they seem to do that a lot. And they’re talking about how complex things are. I think they were having a conversation about the trans herbal apothecary that they both run and how it sucks because they’re not able to get synthetic hormones at the moment because of some of the situations in the novel. And the herbs are great, but maybe it’s not enough and it doesn’t work for everyone and you know a lot and maybe that’s bad for the body as well and things are complicated! Not everything has an easy solution. One of the parts of that complexity when I think Ash is like ‘And this, and this and this’ and just adding so much nuance that there aren’t really answers to anything and she’s mentioning that ‘yeah yeah, and also prozac killed the starlings’ and this is definitely one of the times where I wish I could have put a little reference note there, a little footnote maybe, because I think it was a study in 2015 or somewhere around there, just before I wrote Margins, the study had shown that, among some of the other factors that have been devastating starling populations – particularly like pesticides killing their food, and changing land practices and things – one of the things that seems to be affecting their breeding success was prozac getting into the environment and how complex that is. Because, obviously, what a miraculous drug that so many people in our communities benefit from and there’s definitely magic in that and also it’s designed to change animal behaviour, a side effect is that it’s changing starling behaviour in ways that are killing the starlings. There’s something in there for me about that conversation and it still comes back to me. It’s one of those conversations that just wrote itself in the middle of the night. I was like ‘oh my god, these characters are having this little conversation’. I wake up and write it down. I didn’t feel particularly in control of it. And there’s something there about nuance and complexity and there just not being easy answers. That’s something I always come back to and I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish that I could just be like ‘this is the right thing to do. This is the answer to this difficult problem.’ Unfortunately things are more complicated. And, you know, I love Queer Ecology and that’s all about complexity which doesn’t mean that we don’t take action, it doesn’t mean we don’t look for solutions. It doesn’t mean that we don’t build our movements and work on the things we can work on. And also sometimes I think we need to bear in mind, wow, there might be many factors and things that we’re just not perceiving but they might be there too and things I’m just not aware of and to be open to other people’s perspectives and other layers to the story that we just don’t know yet. And yeah, other creative solutions.

Thank you so much for listening to these stories. I hope I’ve been able to share some of my passion for starlings and murmurations. They’re really amazing. If you get the chance to be near some then, you know, I recommend it. I really enjoyed recording this for you, just sat outside, looking at the sky, it feels amazing to me that we can connect in this way. If you would like to pass this on to your friends or something, I would love that. I don’t have social media so this is how people find out about my work. And if you’d like to know more about the novels, or queer ecology stuff, or workshops or any of the other things I’m doing you can go to https://otterlieffe.com/ There’s also a newsletter there that I send every month or every couple of months to let people know what I’m up to. I should be on tour hopefully in the autumn so hopefully I’ll see some of you then. I hope that you get to be near some birds today and just wish you a beautiful day. Thank you so much. Bye!