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Starlings

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Saturday’s warm weather brought everyone out.

A couple pulled over on Dwight Street to shoot a self portrait on the Canal Walk. Kids rode the merry-go-round and climbed all over the water wheel in Heritage State Park. Another couple ate fast food at a picnic table. Two old men watched a pair of ducks in the canal.

“I’ve never seen ducks here before,” one man said.

The ducks aren’t always there, I told him, but they’re semi-regulars, as are the herons and, when they drain the canals in the spring and fall, the egrets.

The red-tailed hawks were out on Saturday, too. Three of them, exploring the smokestack at Open Square and roosting on City Hall. In the space of just a few blocks, in the span of just a few hours, I saw the ducks, and the hawks, a dove, a mockingbird, starlings, pigeons, sparrows and a number of dark-eyed juncos.

Most of them appear in the slideshow below.

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Starlings over a Hadley farm, February 2010. (c) Greg Saulmon 2010

I just ran across this 2009 article from Audubon Magazine about research into how birds can fly in flocks comprising thousands of members, at speeds of 40 miles per hour, without colliding.

Theories in the 1960s, author Peter Friederici explains, posited that the tight maneuvers of flocks of birds were similar to the movements found in schools of fish — and that each individual need only mimic the movements of its closest neighbors.

But in the 1970s, graduate student Wayne Potts discovered a flaw in the theory: it didn’t explain how flocks can execute maneuvers so quickly. Friederici writes:

By making movies of their flocks and analyzing, frame by frame, how each individual bird moved, he was able to show that a turn ripples through a flock just as a cheerleading wave passes through sports fans at a stadium. He explained the finding with the name of his theory: the “chorus line hypothesis.” An individual dancer who waits for her immediate neighbor to move before initiating her kick will be too slow; similarly, a dunlin watches a number of birds around it, not just its nearest neighbors, for cues. […]

“The wave was propagating through the flock at least three times faster than could be explained if they were just watching their immediate neighbors,” says Potts.

Some of the latest research into flock behavior was taking place in 2009 at the Roman National Museum in Rome, Italy, where a roost of starlings gathers each winter. Scientists are now using software designed for statistical mechanics to create three-dimensional maps of flocks in flight.

Read more about the project, codenamed StarFLAG, here. And, be sure to check out this photo gallery by Richard Barnes that accompanies the Audubon article.

Starlings at Heritage State Park, Oct. 29, 2011. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Everyone could tell the storm was coming.

Just after 10 a.m. a group of men and women stood in the parking lot of a convenience store on High Street trying on coats pulled from one of those clothing donation boxes that looks for all the world like a dumpster.

In the alley behind my apartment a man sitting on an abandoned loading dock asked if I could spare any change. I’d met him once a year earlier, when the governor made a campaign stop at Old San Juan Bakery. As the governor boarded his bus and waved good-bye, the man turned to me and said, “I should run for governor. I could help people — I know what it’s like out here.”

He and a few other men spent the nights out by the river. “We sleep like raccoons,” he told me.

On the morning of the storm I dug through my pockets and found 45 cents.

‘Gracias, amigo,” he said.

“Keep warm,” I said.

“Bless you,” he said, and he folded back into the shadows.

The streets were quiet but the people who were out were enveloped in completing one odd task or another. In a vacant lot on Hampshire Street a man tossed junk into the bed of a pickup truck while a tuxedo-colored cat looked on. On Essex Street a man pushed a big-screen television wedged into a shopping cart. The sky seemed cloudless until you realized it was all cloud, all shapeless and gray.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

A man in a bright orange sweatshirt rode a bike under the huge bright orange trees outside the library, and a tabby cat the color of faded beech leaves sauntered toward the burned out Barlow apartment building.

At the end of Division Street, out at the far end of the blocked off parking deck, a single song sparrow sat in a high branch and braced itself against the thickening wind.

Everyone could tell the storm was coming, especially the birds.

Behind city hall, a blue jay swallowed berries in a tree on Heritage Street. It squeaked and squawked in a language I’ve never heard a blue jay use. A robin — that sign of impending hope and warmth when sighted in March — bounced from tree to tree along the cobblestone street, trying to read the signs of the suddenly confusing season.

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

The pigeons sitting along the upper deck of the parking garage buried their faces in their breasts and shrugged their shoulders hard and looked ready to stay right there and wait out the whole winter.

By the time the snow started falling a few hours later, though, several of the pigeons had taken refuge inside the garage, startling from the rafters and hovering under the low ceiling as I walked through. Outside the snowflakes floated like moths.

The snow had come fast and hard and strong and plenty of people were still out, feeling their way through the streets like they were walking through a milkshake.

In the park the trees blushed and froze like secret lovers caught in the act. Starlings flocked the way they flock in dead winter. Against the sky each bird seemed smaller than the flakes in front of my face.

It’d be a few more hours before the trees started snapping and exploding under the weight of the snow. In the nights that followed the surrounding neighborhoods and towns and cities were dark and the sky seemed suddenly bright. Thousands of us tried to adjust to a world where we woke and slept according to the sun’s shortening cycle; to a world where there seemed little to do beyond trying to find simple food and comfort; to a world that was the only world the birds have ever known.

Starlings perch along the ornate roof of Holyoke's City Hall. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Starlings fly around City Hall's tower. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Starlings against City Hall's stonework. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Starlings fly from the roof of the Dwight Street parking garage. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

House Sparrows take flight at Heritage State Park. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Pigeons at the Dwight Street Parking garage. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Pigeon overboard! (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Bonus squirrel shot. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

A starling on High Street, Holyoke, May 2010. (c) Greg Saulmon 2010

When I was a kid I had a favorite morning ritual: I’d wake up early, sneak into the kitchen, butter a piece of bread, turn on MTV for company and then sit in front of the sliding glass door to the patio of my family’s apartment on Barrett Street, eyes glued to the backyard.

There were birds out there.

They were mostly House Sparrows and Grackles and Starlings, but on a lucky day I’d spot an Evening Grosbeak or one of the Ring-Necked Pheasants that roamed the complex grounds.

I thought about birds all the time. If I wasn’t drawing birds I was wearing out the pages of a Peterson field guide. Sometimes I’d dream about birds: the backyard would look exactly as it did in real life, but it would be filled with Snowy Owls.

But then I got older. I discovered guitars and girls and the big-idea-filled fields of economics and journalism. I still had a soft spot for birds, but I didn’t make time for them.

Then I moved to Holyoke. Downtown Holyoke. And as I started to wander the streets with my camera, hunting for fascinating people and buildings to photograph, I realized: there are birds here, too.

So this is my tribute to the birds downtown. The photographs you see are mine, unless otherwise noted. If you’d like to share a city sighting — in Holyoke or elsewhere — please feel free to post a comment or drop me a line.

Thanks for reading.