At first they circle high in the evening sky. But as night descends, they, too, begin to descend, bird by bird, one at a time, and then all in a rush: 150,000 purple martins swirling together, each bird calling to the others in the failing light as they sweep past the tops of buildings in the heart of downtown Nashville.
To anyone watching from the ground, they look like one great airborne beast, one unmistakable, singular mind.
Their music grows louder and louder as the circles tighten and the birds swing lower and lower, settling in the branches of sidewalk trees, or swerving to take off again as new waves of birds dip down. They circle the building and return.
They lift off, circle, reverse, settle, lift off again. Again and again and again, until finally it is dark. Their chittering voices fall silent. Their rustling wings fall still.
What a glorious sound that would be, after this year of silence and fear. What a gift to gather together and hear that music — the music our own species makes and the music of the birds. Both at once
It is not like Hitchcock: Watching these birds is nothing at all like watching crows and sea gulls and sparrows attack the characters in “The Birds,” Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film.
The purple martins that have been gathering here the past few weeks are merely doing what purple martins always do this time of year: flocking together to fatten up on insects before making the long flight to South America, where they will spend the winter.
That’s not to say the birds aren’t causing problems. The place where they have chosen to roost this time is Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which was already having a terrible year.
With all scheduled programming cancelled or postponed by the pandemic and so much of the symphony budget based on ticket sales, the organisation had no choice but to furlough all the musicians and most of the staff and hope for better days.
What the Nashville Symphony got instead was a plaza full of bird droppings and elm trees so burdened by the weight of 150,000 birds alighting in them night after night that whole limbs are now bent and hanging limp.
The folks at the Schermerhorn at first assumed the birds roosting in their trees were starlings. Downtown Nashville is home to a large number of European starlings that live here year-round, and they have been a nuisance in years past.
It’s easy to mistake a flock of purple martins for a flock of starlings, especially when actual starlings join the martin flock from time to time.
Starlings are an invasive species, introduced during the early 1890s by Shakespeare enthusiasts determined to bring to the United States every bird ever mentioned in Shakespeare.
All 200 million starlings now living in North America are descended from a few dozen birds unwisely released into Central Park during the late 19th century. Thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it is against the law to kill native songbirds. It is perfectly legal to kill starlings.
The transcendently beautiful Schermerhorn is built of limestone, which is highly porous. “The sheer amount of bird poop was causing a massive amount of damage,” my old friend Jonathan Marx, the interim chief operating officer of the Nashville Symphony, said when I called him to ask about the purple martins.
“But we never had any intention of killing the birds. We just wanted them to move on.” The plan was to disperse them by fogging the trees with grapeseed oil.
Purple martins have been roosting in the Nashville area for years — at least since 1996, according to Melinda Welton, the conservation policy co-chair of the Tennessee Ornithological Society — though always before in much smaller numbers.
Among birders, word quickly got around that the purple martins had settled in at the Schermerhorn this year, and in far, far greater numbers than ever before.
I find myself dreaming of a time when the musicians of the Nashville Symphony are back in that beautiful space, perhaps even playing a sunset concert, the doors of the Schermerhorn thrown wide to the music of purple martins swooping down from the sky.
What a glorious sound that would be, after this year of silence and fear. What a gift to gather together and hear that music — the music our own species makes and the music of the birds. Both at once.
— Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.
New York Times