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Birds, Dragons & Telepathy

Sympathetic Thought Experiment:

  • Imagine yourself as a bird, a starling. You are one of thousands of other starlings in the midst of a murmuration. The winds are calm and the setting sun really brings out the iridescence of your wings. But now is no time to admire your own beauty. In every spatial point around you, your companion's wings are flapping furiously as the flock flies in mesmerizing unison, in absolute sympathy. Potential error is everywhere. With such great numbers, which bird is directing the murmuration? How does every bird seem to know where the other is going? After all, one bird is no more directing the whole than any of the rest, right? Any kind of deviation or loss of focus by a single bird would ensue in chaos. How do you, lone starling, know?

My mentor once told me the parable of The Band of Thieves. The thieves in the Band of Thieves are not following their leader. Each thief simply believes that the thief next to them is following. Such paradoxes often bring a chuckle and a momentary pause, but something about that one stuck with me, almost like an unexpected song can become a part of the soundtrack of one’s life, so simple and yet so far-reaching. But starlings are no two-legged and possibly drunken Band of Thieves, far from it. Complexities such as wind currents, barometric pressure, predators and physical impediments result in a dizzying physics. Some ornithologists have even attributed murmurations to telepathy, probably with a stoic face when they did. In a research environment, simulating and measuring such an elegant/berserker process is difficult, if not impossible. So what goes on in the birds’ heads?

Let’s teleport to the fantasy realm for context. Consider a dragon, a griffin, or some other mythical creature with wings. Perhaps fire and wisdom are evoked when you think of dragons, while a combination of lion and eagle constitute the griffin. Magic oozes from their scales or feathers and they are shadowed in secrecy. Something about winged-creatures is highly evocative of magic, something beyond the physics of flight. Freedom blows in our faces and we are mocked by a freedom we can only mimic through heavier than air flight, a hot-air balloon, or even skydiving. Dragons tend to be colossal, crushing the very idea of what can fly. Attributing all sorts of magics with mythical flying creatures is natural. Just consider the ornithologists attribution of telepathy to starlings.

Dragon Riders are often initiated into the role because they are magical beings. They become a part of a greater whole, a Oneness, Dragon-Rider. While the homunculus of Descartes is an interesting intellectual flight of fancy, something about the Dragon Rider strikes me as wonderfully apt for the murmuration of starlings. The Rider is moving the Dragon as surely as the Dragon is moving the Rider. Magic and realm-crushing destruction might ensue, but one cannot be whole without the other, Dragon is reduced to dragon, Rider to she/he/they. The Rider is a crowning attribute of the Dragon's brain.

When I see a murmuration of starlings over the bay where I live, I find myself attributing some other kind of gift to the birds. It only gets more dizzying when I consider the one and then the whole, a handful of those birds in the midst of the murmuration, on the peripheries, above, below… A little Rider must be inside of each one of those iridescent heads of theirs, otherwise, the little birds could never pull of such dazzling feats. If anything, the murmuration, as a collective, is further proof that the most beautiful things in this world are never aware of their own beauty, even if they are in the midst of a hyperawareness beyond measure.

By Hayden Moore

October 27, 2021

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