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by Angela Young
African starlings are brightly, brilliantly coloured.
Some of them are glossy violet-black. Some are shiny blue and green. Some are violet and some are yellow. Some even have splashes of red and orange on their bodies.
But on every African starling there’s at least one patch of black.
But it wasn’t always so. There was a time when starlings were plain black. It was at that time that a terrible thing happened: a day when the starlings thought their eardrums would burst, a day many of them did not survive.
On that day the wind watched the starlings standing in huddles on the ground with their heads hidden under their wings. The wind whistled and whispered, “Tell me what’s wrong.”
Sixteen starlings turned their faces to the wind and said: “A terrible shriek is torturing our eardrums.”
“It won’t stop, we’ve never heard anything like it before. We can’t hear ourselves think. It’s so loud, we can’t even fly.”
At that moment a shadow fell across the great plain and the wind whipped round to see a tall black cloud spiralling towards them.
When the cloud blotted out the sun, night arrived in the middle of the day. The shriek was so loud that the starlings could only stare at the place where the sun had been and wonder if this was the end of the world.
But the wind whistled close to the ground and gathered the starlings round as she said, in her lowest gentlest voice, “That shriek is the shriek of the locusts. I know because I’ve heard it before. But you starlings, and I, are the only ones on earth who can hear it.”
The shriek came closer and closer as the wind whispered, “Because we can hear it, we are the only ones who can do what must be done.”
“What must be done?” said one of the sixteen, in a very small voice.
“We must fight them,” said the wind. “Before they eat everything in their path. Before they destroy our land. Before there’s nothing left.’”
The sixteen starlings shuddered.
“We’ll muster an army,” roared the wind as loudly as she could, to make sure the starlings heard her above the shriek.
“We’re in this together.”
The wind gathered the starlings in their thousands and the sixteen led their fellows in huge flocks, while the terrible shriek of the locusts made them think they might explode.
Some flocks ploughed into the enormous swarm from its sides; some flew high on the wind, flattened their wings and nose-dived into the solid shrieking mass while the locusts hunched under their shells and sharpened the spikes on their legs.
But the wind came from all directions and helped the starlings pierce the locusts’ shells with their sharp beaks, the air was a mass of flying black feathers and falling bodies.
It was a horrible, frightening fight and many times the terrified starlings felt too weak to go on. But the wind whistled and whispered that they were fighting for the life of the earth herself, and the starlings were filled with exceptional courage – a courage they’d never felt before.
They returned again and again to the heart of the sticky-black swarm of locusts, while the wind blew them onwards.
Some starlings were blinded, some were spiked and others bled so much from their rubbed-raw beaks that they fell to the ground. But, whenever she could, the wind carried them far from their battlefields to safety.
Six of the original sixteen starlings were among the wounded: they’d led their flocks into the shrieking swarm until they were so tired they fell to the ground while the battle raged on above them.
But just when the shriek was at its sharpest and the darkness of the swarm was at its deepest – just when the starlings thought they really could not go on – chinks of light began to appear inside the shrieking swarm. The chinks of light warmed the starlings’ backs, when they blinked up into the beautiful yellow light they gathered what was left of their strength for one final assault.
The wind blew and blew. But, this time, as the starlings ploughed in and nose-dived down, the shrieking swarm scattered.
At the end of that long and terrible day, silence returned to the great, flat, grassy plain in the heart of the heart of Africa, the sun shed a glorious orange light on the starlings’ victory and the wind carried them home.
When the starlings woke the next morning, the wind ruffled their feathers in honour.
The wind spoke to them all “All you starlings who fought the locusts yesterday, all who ploughed in and nose-dived down, all who found their courage and refused to let the shriek defeat them,” the wind took a deep breath, “you are the bravest of birds. You defended the earth against her enemy. You have won a great victory.”
The starlings drank from their little gourds of water as the wind said, “The trees and the thorn bushes, the grasses and all your fellow creatures have asked me to thank you for fighting for them.
“They know they wouldn’t be here this morning, if not for you. Many of your fellow creatures spent the night bringing water from the great red river to show you how grateful they are.”
The starlings began to clean their sticky black feathers in their little gourds of water. “All that thrives on this earth,” the wind said, “all your fellow creatures have agreed that the earth’s highest honour shall be yours. From today, every starling who fought the shrieking swarm will be awarded brilliant flying colours. There is no higher praise nor deeper thanks.”
The starlings stopped cleaning their feathers and gasped.“Watch the colours come,” said the wind. “First, comes the red of the earth whose life you have saved.”
The starlings saw streaks and rays of red flow towards them in the gentle wind. Some caught it and rubbed it onto their breasts.
“Next comes orange,” said the wind. “The orange of the sun as he set at the end of your victorious day.”
Rays of orange rippled through the massed ranks of starlings. Some caught it and ruffled it onto among their feathers; some rubbed it onto their bellies.
“Next,” said the wind, “comes yellow. The yellow of the sun that lights and warms our days, the yellow the shrieking swarm so nearly took away forever.
“And here too is green, the green of the grasses and the green of the trees who would not be here this morning, without you.”
Yellow and green shimmered on the wind among the starlings. Some caught the yellow and put it on the backs of their heads, some flicked green onto each other’s wings and all their bodies began to glow with the colours.
“As you choose your flying colours,” whispered the wind, “remember your fellow starlings, the ones who fell yesterday. Leave a black patch somewhere on your bodies for their sakes.”
The starlings stood still and silent as they remembered their fellows.
“And now comes pale blue for the morning sky, and deep blue for the evening sky: the same skies that would have been lost to us forever, without you.” The wind said.
The blues flew towards the starlings. Some made deep blue stripes on their wings; others rubbed pale blue flecks onto their throats.
“Now comes violet,” said the wind. “The violet of the very greatest. The violet of heroes.”
When the violet swirled towards the starlings they caught lots of it: they swished it onto their bellies and swung it onto their wings and swirled stripes of violet round their necks.
“Finally,” said the wind, “comes white.”
The starlings streaked white onto the tips of their wings and striped it across their breasts.
“Wear your flying colours with pride,” whistled the wind. “Tell anyone who asks you that you earned them in a great battle that saved our world.”
The starlings’ colours shone and shimmered in the sunlight and the wind hummed and thrummed around them, congratulating them on their victory.
And that, as you might already have guessed, is the reason African starlings are brilliantly, brightly coloured. It’s why there are glossy violet-black starlings, shiny blue and green starlings, violet and yellow starlings, and starlings with splashes of red and orange on their bodies.
It’s also why each and every African starling carries at least one patch of black on his or her body: to remind them of their fellow starlings, the ones who gave their all in the great battle against the shrieking locust swarm.