How Starlings Spoke for the Gods in Ancient Rome

Religious leaders interpreted the shapes of these birds' murmurations to see if the gods gave, or withheld, their approval.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote.

European Starlings arrived in North America in the 19th century. But they’ve lived side by side with humans since way before then.

In the European Starling’s native range of Europe and western Asia, people have been farming, herding, and erecting settlements for millennia. And starlings have adapted alongside them, finding nest cavities in buildings and flocking around any agricultural activity that might promise seeds, fruit, or a bounty of insect prey.

We know for certain that starlings were present in great numbers in ancient Rome. They swarmed in massive flocks of the kind we today call murmurations—thousands of individuals cascading and folding in awe-inspiring geometric patterns in the sky.

Roman augurs, or diviners, scrutinized these patterns for signs of how the gods were feeling that day. Divination was crucial for major decision-making: if there was a key battle in the offing or political intrigue brewing, the augurs looked to the skies. “Taking the auspices,” it was called—to see if the gods gave, or withheld, their approval.

Some flock patterns offered more auspicious signs or omens than others. From time to time, it may have seemed like the future of Rome itself hung on the correct reading of the movements of these very common but highly adaptable birds.

For BirdNote, I’m Mary McCann.



Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. 107248 Recorded by Wilbur L Hershberger. Synaulia-Music of Ancient Rome Vol. 2 performed by Walter Maioli. 

BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Sallie Bodie

Narrator: Mary McCann

© 2016 Tune In to   September 2018