A 150,000-Bird Orchestra in the Sky

NASHVILLE — 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.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 canceled or postponed by the pandemic and so much of the symphony budget based on ticket sales, the organization 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.ImageNashville residents have been coming out in the evenings to watch the purple martins.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York TimesThe 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 millio
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