Sky ballet

It was Christmas morning, and my wife and I were enjoying a break at the end of what had been a hectic December. The view from our hotel balcony—a pristine lake surrounded by snowcapped mountains—was idyllic, but as an avid bird watcher, it’s what was happening above that caught my interest.

Several large flocks of thousands of starlings were wheeling and turning in perfect synchronization. They would break off in small groups and then reunite. They ascended, descended, turned, and whirled as one body. The swarms constantly changed shape, with one edge of the flock meeting another and then breaking off into a new formation to fly in opposite directions. The display lasted for over thirty minutes.

According to some ornithologists, this amazing sky ballet is due to birds seeking out thermals of warm air during the winter. The birds can ride these updrafts for hours. Louise Crandal, a former paragliding world champion, actually glides with her trained steppe eagle to get the best results. She advises other gliders:

“Follow the birds. They’re the masters of the sky, so do what they do. It’s as simple as that! … I realized that birds don’t fly in circles. They turn, but never in neat 360s. Every single lap is different and they constantly adjust and move to where the thermal is stronger or even a couple of hundred meters to the side to find better lift. Whenever you get the chance to fly with a bird, try to follow it as closely as possible. Soaring birds automatically stay in lift for as long as possible, even with an annoying paragliding pilot on their tails, so there’s always something to learn.” 1

Back to Christmas Day and our view of the magnificent midair acrobatic show: It seemed almost like the birds were dancing in praise to their Creator, and I thought back on the first angelic choir proclaiming Christ’s birth: “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” 2

Jesus promised: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” 3 Let us join the angels in praises this Christmas, take wings, and soar heavenwards! 4

  1. “How to Thermal: Zen and the Art of Circles Part 2: Vertical Motion,” Cross Country magazine, March 23, 2006.
  2. Luke 2:13–14
  3. John 12:32
  4. See Psalm 55:6.