Sunday 21 January 2018

Blood and feathers in epic battle of the birds

Birds-eye view: Depiction of ‘Battell of the Stares’
Birds-eye view: Depiction of ‘Battell of the Stares’

Joe Kennedy

Thousands of starlings fought and killed one another in a bloody aerial battle over Cork in the 17th Century.

Almost a year later the city burned to the ground during a massive lightning storm.

So what's the connection? Scribes and seers of the period saw God's hand at work.

The bird battle, fought over several days, was later seen as an omen for Corkonians to mend their ways or they would be smote!

Incredible? History reveals the facts, mostly forgotten, but recorded by the diarist Samuel Pepys and others of his ilk at the time.

Street ballads were composed and sheets printed with woodcuts engraved about the 'Battell of the Stares' which "began and ended with such hate/ Some strange event it did prognosticate" - which turned out to be the fire, "God's heavy hand on sin".

The great starling fight, which apparently briefly re-located to London before returning, is mentioned in Foster's Irish Oddities (New Island), an eclectic little book of curious events which sent me back to Glynn Anderson's Birds of Ireland: facts, folklore and history (The Collins Press), published some years ago, where it is mentioned. There is also a woodcut of the battle, at the Pepys Library in Cambridge University.

The starling phenomenon was remarkable. Two great 'murmurations' of the birds separately gathered over Cork for several days, sending small emissary groups back and forth until, negotiations having obviously broken down, all hell broke loose over the Lee on October 12, 1621 (or September 8, according to a Gerald Tonge, a Pepys contemporary.)

It was a gruesome affair that "trembling feare and terror brought, to all who saw the battell fought." A Pepysian Garland paints a grim picture: "With loud and chattering cryes each company 'gainst the other flyes, with bloody beaks, remorseless still, their feathered foes to maime or kill, where whilst this battell did remain, their bodies fell like drops of raine."

Pepys gives tunes for the screed, Bonny Nell and Shore's Wife, while a Richard Shannie produced another diary of events. Seven months later, on May 31, 1622, followed what was described as "The Lamentable Burning of Cork" with "fyre from heaven" and the citizens "overwhelmed with woe, for no one knew where to run or goe."

The starling battle was seen then as a portent, one pamphleteer writing reprovingly "Cork was first warned and then destroyed for her sins".

Scientific sources point out that animal and bird fights usually occur over territory, food, shelter and mates.

Intraspective aggression, in which animals/birds attack members of their own species, is widespread across the animal kingdom, from ragworms, salmon and lobsters to songbirds, rats and chimps.

There is an amusing story of one chimpanzee, famous through the work of behavioural scientist Jane Goodall, that intimidated rivals by banging two oil cans together!

Starling numbers have fallen considerably in recent years but annual 'murmurations', especially over the Midlands, are welcomed by the public with a mixture of awe and admiration for their peaceful aerial wafting as if to the strains of a celestial waltz being played only for them. As perhaps it may well be.

Sunday Independent

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