A sudden rushing overhead indicates the apparition of a thousand living darts. We immediately fall silent and motionless, our heads tilting upwards to catch black paper aeroplanes, a mass of which suddenly pepper January’s lucid evening sky. They swirl in uncanny unison, forming a great, undulating orb. The hovering hive-body gives the impression of a distinctly ‘other’ life form unbound from earthly categories, more like a sentient lake than any plant or animal. The bodies of individual starlings are lost in a hypnotising display of aerial shoaling. With their extremely fast reaction times, starlings can make decisions and changes to flight direction in a split second, exhibiting through the winter spectacle of murmuration a strange, bodily sympathy, in which each individual is attuned to the movements of their neighbour. It is the opposite of choreography: in its presence, the idea of planning and rehearsal seem meaningless.
This extra-terrestrial encounter takes place on a decidedly domestic front: the Humber estuary, a turbid expanse of grey-purple water cracking wide the county border between North Lincolnshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire. Overhead hangs the two-kilometre-wide Humber Bridge; in its shadow the mud-silt flatness of the river’s banks hosts a huge variety of birds. Having grown up here, I’m only now beginning to appreciate the area for its subtle bleakness, its lack of topographical drama (Humberside is pretty much flat) counterweighted by its hidden ecological richness. This could be something to do with the skewed, iterative view available to a returning visitor, like the birds paying seasonal visits. Impression is layered over impression, repetitive enough for familiarity but staggered enough to notice incremental change.
During the second and third coronavirus lockdowns in the UK, I’ve developed a habit of walking daily along the brackish wetland habitats (‘ings’) that line the southern edge of the Humber. I tend to carry an RSPB book and, more recently, the pamphlet Skyline, Shoreline, Treetop Messenger by the artist duo Juneau Projects (Philip Duckworth and Ben Sadler). The book has been commissioned by Invisible Dust and Humber Museums Partnership as part of Surroundings, a multi-year stint of artistic programming in the Humberside area focusing on environmental issues. The book accompanies a new bronze sculpture by the same artists in North Lincolnshire Museum in Scunthorpe, and an adjacent public art trail by Common Ground, a group of six young curators from the area formed to respond to Juneau Projects’ work. Common Ground created a temporary art trail so that the programme could be accessed at a time when gathering indoors has been impossible, placing works by different artists across several public, outdoor locations at walkable distances. Book, sculpture and trail are all inspired by the Museum’s taxidermy collection, the region’s ecological history and contemporary issues around biodiversity.
The pamphlet contains colourful illustrations alongside text contributions by scientists, curators, and the artists themselves. Through reading I learn that part of the region’s ornithological significance lies in the fact that the Humber estuary (along with much of the east coast of England) is situated on the East Atlantic Flyway, a major migratory route for birds moving between the Arctic and Africa. Significant stopping points on the flyway seem to comprise other wetland sites: in Eurasia, Russia’s Olonets plains and the Netherlands’ Wadden Sea; in East Africa Senegal’s Djoudj wetlands, Mauritiana’s Banc d’Arguin National Park, and the Arquipélago dos Bijagós in Guinea-Bissau. In the pamphlet, local bird ecologist Lucas Mander notes that the deterioration of wetland, estuarine and coastal habitats particularly contributes to the decline of the world’s migratory birds. Indeed, many of those pictured in the pamphlet are wetland species; avocets, cormorants, bitterns and curlews all require watery homes.
Before the centuries of enclosure that took place from around the late medieval period, the landscape around the Humber was almost entirely dominated by bogs and wetlands, which stretched across Lincolnshire, the East Riding, and down to the fens of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. Along with 97% of the rest of the UK’s wetlands, they have now been levelled for commercial and agricultural purposes; former wetlands tend to provide particularly rich soil. Only tiny fragments of this sanctuary habitat remain in Humberside, Far Ings Nature Reserve (where the starling murmuration took place) being one.
Seasonal avian numbers are also in decline due to human activity and the changing climate. Droughts, desertification and extreme weather patterns along migration routes result in more hazardous journeys for migrant birds. They also disrupt crucial seasonal expectations, unlinking the moment at which food resources become available along the route from the timing of migration. These temporal disturbances are already present; precisely how they will play out in the complex unfolding of the global climate crisis is yet to be seen, though curator Jeanine Griffin of Invisible Dust notes that the North Lincolnshire Museum’s historic bird collection holds relics of many species which are now extinct or diminished. Scientists anticipate further changes yet. Mander even speaks of bird populations themselves as ‘indicators of global environmental changes’, noting how ‘climate changes or human impact on one place on this route affect the bird populations in others’.
Even before human-made climate change, birds have been seen as indicators and predictors. In ancient Rome, augury was the practice of interpreting omens in the behaviour of birds, with the appointment of state officials requiring a positive ‘auspicium’ or sign from the gods. Portents are not climate science, but the mind seeks them out. In a world in which destabilisation feels increasingly tangible (climate breakdown, the rapid advancement and proliferation of technology, the chaotic emergence of long-promised pandemics), I catch myself picking out omens from the mundane, perhaps as part of a search for meaning and rhythm in the daily deluge of news and information. The nightly appearance of an ever-expanding phalanx of geese, or buzzard cries refracting back against the slow pulse of the Humber. In the stretched and cyclical timelines of lockdown, they seem newly significant and mysterious.
Just as mysterious are the starlings’ motives for murmuration. There are many speculated reasons for the phenomenon, not least that there’s safety in numbers. The swirling of the birds allows information to be shared on predators, food sources and roosting sites. It’s perhaps too easy to read into this, to augur spectral equivalences of our own condition in the murmur of the birds, but I think of instances during the past year in which it has been imperative to gather in order to offer mutual support or public solidarity; moments of collectivity punctuating the new imperatives to stay apart. The introduction to Skyline, Shoreline, Treetop Messenger speaks of the solace to be found in watching birds, especially when many of us are spending more time at home. In birds and birdwatching, we can perhaps begin to unpick the distinctions between ‘wellness’ – popularly viewed as a set of individual practices, perhaps including birdwatching, in which one attends only to one’s own care and safety – and the wider issues that form the foundations of true wellbeing. To be and feel part of the interconnected web of human and non-human life is fundamental to our welfare. Ensuring the conditions in which human and non-human life may continue to flourish cannot be achieved through individual practices.
For the birds, their thriving partly hinges on drastically changing the way that we humans prioritise and consume land. In Skyline, Shoreline, Treetop Messenger, Dr Nicola Hemmings notes that eggs, otherwise an ‘elegant, self-contained life support system’, have been threatened by huge, rapid changes in the environment to which they are adapted, ‘resulting in increased rates of reproductive failure and species decline’. Hemmings highlights that it is specifically the way that we use land that leaves eggs vulnerable, noting how a shift in attitude towards local wildlife habitats is required in order to ‘value, respect and protect’ nesting sites. Juneau Projects stated that working with scientists ‘helped us as artists, but also bird enthusiasts, to build much more of a sense of the lives of these birds beyond the glimpses we see in the wild… many [species] are local to the Humber area and Scunthorpe, but they have a life that is almost global… it gives us a sense of this wider life of the birds, and how the impact that we have upon those lives are all the points where they migrate and journey’.
For the book’s illustrations, Juneau Projects created works in collaboration with local workshop participants, who were tutored by the artists in painting, papercutting, lino printing and wax modelling. ‘One of our core interests is people’s creativity, and that inherent need people have to make things… We can offer people various opportunities to make things in a variety of media with a different range of outcomes’. Workshops and events were held over Zoom: ‘One of the main challenges was to conduct workshops under lockdown conditions – we just weren’t sure how people would respond, or that people would want to join in online. We did a lot of planning around both how to get the message out to people, and what materials to prepare. We made a series of different art kits to send out to people for the workshops. Fortunately, due to the community that the museum has around it, all of those workshops were pretty much snapped up straight away’. Participants drew inspiration from images of habitats and birds by local photographers, along with images from the North Lincolnshire Museum’s collection. Bringing together interdisciplinary groups seems inherent to the ethos of the project, propagating a local ecological awareness that is crucial to changing the lens through which we see our habitat.
Shoreline, Skyline, Treetop Messenger is available to purchase on Juneau Projects’ website. A series of online events took place as part of the projects, including a conversation between Juneau Projects and bird scientist Dr Nicola Hemmings.
Jay Drinkall is a writer and editor based in the UK.
 BirdLife International, ‘East Atlantic Flyway’, available at: http://datazone.birdlife.org/userfiles/file/sowb/flyways/4_East_Atlantic_Factsheet.pdf