Country diary: spooked by the starlings as they rushed all around me
It happened once before, at dusk in December, on the same hollow track that passes through the wood. This time, again, it was upon me, and I had the same unsettling instinct to run with it, my heart racing.
The sun had set, the pheasants had roosted and all was still. I was out with the dog. When the sound came, it rushed above us like a great gust of wind through the trees – though no tree stirred. It was a hollow, curving sound, like the sea being sucked out, only with the speed of a passing jet. Five seconds later, it was all over.
But, eerily, I saw nothing. I was left frightened, but also frustrated. The dog trotted out of the wood, looking up with her grey muzzle open for a woof she didn’t utter.
It was either something natural or haunted – of that I was certain. A flock of birds then, but what? The only species here in numbers that big, going that fast are snipe or golden plover on the high tops. I’ve stood among them there, exhilarated, while they’ve zipped about in double helixes and folded scarves wide around my shoulders.
They sounded immense and thrilling, but they didn’t sound like this.
Two days later I was out in the cold field. After I’d brought the horses in, there was an iridescent scattering of the light around me and a seething static noise. The ground was beetling, rising and falling like a body breathing, or a net repeatedly resettled over the earth – an oily dew pond of darkly glittering shellac. I felt a prickle of fright, until it morphed into hundreds and hundreds of starlings. Of course.
They lifted as one body, shimmered above like a saucepan lid, stilled in gliding silence, then rushed overhead with a roar that held all the power of the sea in it. Inexplicably, I wanted to cry. The chattering of many voices, the frisson of a crowd. Something from another time; a lost place.
We don’t see starling flocks like this here much. The following day a bird-scaring gas cannon went off so loudly it shook the house windows, making my heart race again. Where do they go, when we drive them off, one place to another? We make refugees of the birds and forget our place in the world.
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