Every season our skies play host to an exchange of bird species as vast currents of migrations cross paths. In the winter, Brighton sees thousands of starlings cross the sea from the colder parts of Europe to hunker down and nest in our relatively mild conditions. If you find yourself on the seafront around sunset between late November and early March, you’ll hardly be able to miss their black masses beginning to form in the sky over one pier or another, twisting and blooming into improbable shapes as the sun dips below the horizon.
In a natural world where every ounce of energy is needed to keep the evolutionary edge over life and death, these congregations of starlings known as murmurations stand out as an unexplained extravagance. Seemingly, they would do well to get straight under the pier and huddle together to stay warm for the night, where they are hidden from predators – making a big spectacle over the open water leaves them extra visible to the peregrines that prey upon them. The only explanation that scientists can come up with is that they do it for play, for the sheer joy of it.
Local artists Lou McCurdy and Steve Geliot, inspired by the wonder and mystery of these natural displays, have created an exhibition currently showing at the Phoenix Gallery on Waterloo Place until Feb 20. Undercurrents explores different aspects of these birds and their life cycles in the Brighton ecosystem. There’s sculpture, photography, a sound installation and scientific data, all depicting an animal that is in drastic decline and constantly fighting the adversity of the changing environment.
The exhibition sheds light on the relationship between the starlings and the peregrine falcons to whom the murmurations are but a giant airborne buffet. The downward inclines of the starling population stats paint a bleak picture, but the artists have taken it upon themselves to help out the birds by building 100 wooden nest boxes, proudly on display on the wall of the gallery, which will later be placed across the city. Creating new habitats for the birds is one way of preventing the population decline that has seen the murmurations dwindle to a fraction of what they once were.
For anyone looking for something unconventionally romantic to do on Valentine’s Day, here is my recommendation: take your person to this exhibition in the afternoon, wander around in the placid, silent gallery with the world rushing by outside the windows, learn about the plight of these beautiful birds, maybe have a coffee in the gallery café down the corridor, then carry on down the main road to the pier to see the real thing for yourselves.
If you time it right, the sun will be setting as you approach, and there will be a few mini flocks of straggling birds whooshing over your head, coming back from feeding in town. Go onto the pier and stroll on past the sweet shops and arcades, maybe share some donuts, and wait for the cloud of starlings to coalesce over you.
It can take just a moment for a loose collection of birds to compress into one rippling mass moving as if it’s a single intelligence. There’s always a small crowd of people scattered along the railings, oohing and ahhing at the shifting patterns as if it’s a fireworks display, transfixed by the hypnotic morphing of the shapes. It’s romantic in a completely uncontrived way. The birds are performing a ritual of togetherness, seeking company and forging connections, making something beautiful and celebratory in the process.
Whether it’s part of a romantic moment or a solitary wander, it’s an opportunity for a mindful moment, to just be still and part of nature, which isn’t always easy in a city. The murmurations are something to treasure before the majority of the birds head off on their yearly migration. By the end of February they will mostly be gone, and it’s sad to say it but the future remains uncertain for these winter spectacles, so catch them and cherish them while you can.