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Saturday essay: Safety in numbers

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Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

The starlings have been using a neighbor's giant silver maple as a way station for the past week or so. Their songs are as loud as their flights in unison are brief, the latter akin to a giant black Slinky being cast into the sky, curving slowly, then being snapped back into the branches.

For a time it was unclear why they were there.

The older fella walking by the other night, an evening that carried with it a decidedly cooler bite, an Irish sky and the sweet fragrances of not-quite-dry apple wood burning in a fireplace, said it was a sure sign of an early fall.

“And the acorns are dropping, too.” He pointed to the street oak that, as if on cue, expelled a handful more.

Indeed, such bird behavior can signal fall migration. But this is a tad early; official autumn is five weeks away. What else could it be? The answer came a few days later.

The starlings were back, loud as ever. You could see the beginnings of another Slinky exercise. But this time it was cut short and with a louder-than-usual cacophony of cries and wings flapping furiously.

The birds already sensed what the human eye was about to confirm: the blur of a predator — likely a hawk, perhaps a falcon — swooping out of the sky in hopes of seizing a straggler or two.

But it was not to be — this time. The bird of prey pulled up and back into the sky as the starlings once again found safety in numbers in their silver maple refuge.

— Colin McNickle

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