Rome is for the Birds

Since today is the Ides of March, I decided to write about Rome. The Ides is most famously known for being the day of the betrayal and murder of Julius Caeser, predicted by a seer, and the scene being recreated in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caeser. Traditionally, March was the first month in the year of the Roman calendar, which followed the lunar cycle, like most early calendars. The Ides was meant to fall halfway between one month and another, but also on the day of the full moon. The Ides would have been the first full moon of the year, and throughout Roman history different celebrations took place on this day.

moon-phase-latin

The Romans didn’t just base their calendars on the lunar cycle and the sky, their religion and lifestyle was based on the movement of the planets, stars, and other celestial observances. It may be hard to see the stars and the planets in the city these days, but there is something worthy of watching in the sky before it gets dark. That is massive number of starlings, known as a murmuration. I discovered this, with much amazement in 2009, during my visit to Rome. The birds gather over the city every day at sunset, and create a beautiful performance against the backdrop of a sunset and the skyline.

Swarms-and-starling-murmuration
Photo Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

Starlings over Rome Short Documentary Video

My friends living in Rome had recommended their favorite place to watch the sunset, on the east side of the city at the Trinità dei Monti, which is also known as the Spanish Steps. You have a great view of all of Rome, it’s many domes, and despite it being a very popular place, it is large enough that you don’t feel crowded. While I was watching the sunset, this large group of starlings started sweeping over the city, dancing in and out of each other, crowding closer and further apart. I had seen starlings before, but never this many of them, and aside from their movements, you could hear them loud and clear. Another interesting aspect of the starling is their ability to mimic sounds around them, and to recognize individual human voices as well.

Illustration of Two types of Roman Augurs
A priest in ancient Rome who determined the will of the Gods by reading the flight patterns of the starlings and other birds in the sky.

In ancient Rome, the seers tried to discern the will of the Gods based on the movements of these starlings. The starlings were documented as early as 1 A.D. If they were trying to figure out what the Gods were saying, it is no surprise as the starling can mimic a large variety of noises, included human words and other modern noises and sounds. This one is bilingual, speaking English and Spanish he seems to have picked up from the television.

Example of Starling Mimicry

I enjoy that the starlings have been a part of the city for centuries and despite all the trouble they cause (that is a lot of bird poop to clean up) they are just as much a part of the history of the city as any of the monuments and famous sites. They are absolutely fascinating creatures, and easily missed while in Rome if you forget to look up.

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