Via Dionigi, Rome, Nov. 23—
Birds over the Tribunali
FOURTEEN MILLION STARLINGS doing their exercises in solid geometry, is what I wrote from Rome over four years ago — Feb. 1, 2004, to be precise. That's the only precision here: don't regard the phrase, or any other above or below my name, as factual. The number may be off by quite a bit. They may know no more than I about solid geometry. And they may not have been starlings.
I've asked a number of people what these birds are called, and only one person has hazarded a guess more specific than uccellini, little birds. Passeri, he said they were called, passeri, because they migrate. At least I think that's what he said; he definitely called them passeri, which my little dictionary tells me is Italian for "sparrow."
I'm pretty sure, though I'm no birder, that these aren't sparrows. They might not be starlings. I tend to call any small black annoying bird a starling. They act like swifts. You don't see them at first, you only sense they're about to show up; then suddenly there they are, great clouds of them wheeling about in the sky. You stare at them in open-mouthed (not a good idea) wonder. Why do they do this; how do they avoid collisions; what communication exists among them; do they have leaders in any sense.
We got off the number 280 bus in the Piazza Cavour and saw, first thing, people standing around looking at the sky. We knew why: the bus had come up the lungotevere, the avenue along the Tiber; it's lined with plane trees, and the birds were already lighting among those trees. You could hear them, and you could see their dirty work on the pavement, which is washed daily, I think.
(You could also see an astounding exhibit of their work on one unfortunate car which must have been parked under that tree for a number of days. If the car were mine I wouldn't claim it until well after the rains have come.)
The birds have been flocking here to Rome for some time; we first noticed them a couple of weeks ago, when we saw two people in hazmat suits working the Piazza Cenci, down the street from the Argentina. They were brandishing machines that made eerie electronic sounds, in an effort to frighten the birds away from the piazza's trees — a futile gesture, I thought, rather like blowing leaves into the wind: but I suppose it makes work, and maybe there's something particularly sacred about the Cenci.
I've always enjoyed looking at birds in flight, and particularly like the ever-changing patterns of these huge flocks. Since in Rome one's mind is always straying back to antiquity you can't help thinking of how these avian exercises may have struck the ancients, whether rustics out tending sheep — who, come to think of it, flock, the sheep I mean, not the rustics, pretty much the way the birds do — or whether city-dwellers here in Rome. Birds, of course, were Meaningful; the patterns of their flights, and of their entrails and on their livers for that matter, were useful in precipitating decisions of various kinds, and in foretelling the future.
The hotel clerk has no idea what these birds are called, but he knows why they're here: Rome is warm, being a city full of burning petroleum products, and has plenty of nice tall trees; Rome attracts these birds from all around.
C'e un disastro, a man on the street said the other day, It's a disaster, they come every year at this time, they're noisy and dirty, they ruin the passaggiata, you can't walk under the trees, or sit outside with an aperitif.
I suppose he's right: I certainly don't walk under the trees, not if I can help it. But the displays are beautiful, arresting and beautiful and utterly organic, natural and transient and amazing.