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  Cornell University

Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

6. ‘Tis the Season…

…Of Rome’s four million starlings to come out and fill the sky with their kinetic art of swooping, diving and chattering. There are so many of them that one study claimed that the starlings consumed 5% of Italy’s olives, 10 olives per bird on the daily.

I am privileged to have our studio space right adjacent to three huge trees that house some of these birds, therefore being able to witness nightly performances from my desk. The black silhouettes of the little things cloud the sunset sky in curvaceous volumes that then disperse in a frenzy of panic, a choreography of movement that is said to occur at sight of a predator.

They sound like… hundreds of tiny shards of glass vigorously shaken together to produce a high-pitched white noise that layers upon Rome like a blanket. Rome’s proud and dignified facades frame their sky paintings and the city’s trees become the right places to be for any of the young, gregarious and hungry little birds.

Their acrobatic shows however, come with a price; Rome is slowly but surely rained upon with guano (a lighter term for bird excrement), Romans covering their heads with hoods and umbrellas in disgust while vulnerable tourists stare agape at the sky (including myself. I wasn’t spared).

The goo is oily and slippery due to the birds’ olive-filled diet, even making some of the roads near the Tiber dangerous for road travelers. And the smell; well, it does add an interesting note upon the general scents of a busy metropolitan city. According to some newspapers, this issue is so repugnant to Romans that it has inspired the usually apathetic local government to train a team of hawks to shepherd the ‘murmuration’ (the apt name given to group of energetic, poop-prone starlings) away from the historic city.

I am however, convinced that the beauty of this natural phenomenon will keep a smile plastered on my face despite the patter of feces on and around me (most of my friends are revolted that I would even say this, seeing the birds as thousands of insects encroaching upon the sky to block out the sun and plunge the groundling world into a post-apocalyptic world of creepy-crawly insectile domination. To each his own)

Naturally as an architect I would talk about the aesthetics of the phenomenon first, but the science behind it is equally fascinating. Scientist George F. Young investigated the birds’ ability to keep their flock cohesive despite the uncertainty of their surroundings and their crude communication capability. He noticed that each bird limits its interaction with only 6-7 of its colleagues, dividing the flock into self-sufficient units that then build the murmuration.

If you don’t happen to be in Europe to see this, try central park for a treat of  aviation acrobatics, as starlings were introduced to the New York skyline in an effort to have every Shakespearean species in the new country in the 1800s.

Gelato update: in Prague, a friend of a friend recommended trying jasmine rice gelato. The ice-cream is sweet and light, with frozen rice bits transforming the texture.

Images above taken right next to studio

Featured Image Credit: Joseph Kim B.Arch 2021

Signing off,

Ami Mehta

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