nel freddo tempo, a schiera larga e piena,
cosi quel fiato li spiriti mali
di qua, di la, di gui, di su li mena;
nulla speranza, li conforta mai,
non che di posa, ma di minor pena.
As winter starlings riding on their wings
Form crowded flocks, so spirits dip and veer
Foundering in the wind's rough buffetings,
Upward or downward, driven here and there
With never ease from pain nor hope of rest.
Dante, Inferno, Canto V
Robert Pinsky, trans.
On Friday we were up on the Janiculum at sunset and noticed what we at first took to be smoke -- a strange dark cloud swirling over the city. Upon closer inspection, we saw that it was a gigantic flock of birds, starlings, flying in close formation, turning and folding in upon itself as it was buffeted by the wind. Last night, again right around sunset, we saw them again, this time closer up.
I've been to Rome a number of times, but somehow I missed out on this apparently well-known phenomenon. Here is an article from the New York Times Magazine about it. The birds leave the city during the day to feed in the countryside, and return in the evening to roost.
It is a sight that is at once eerie and fascinating. I can now understand why Dante used the image in the Inferno to describe the eternal fate of those souls who were in this life controlled by their passions. The birds lose all individual identity and seem to give themselves over to the random current of air that push them this way and that. It is somewhat ominous, while at the same time beautiful.
But it is is easier to show than to describe. Here are a couple of pictures taken by Sophie:
And here is a video we found on YouTube (double-click the arrow):