This month’s bird, the starling, is full of charisma, surprisingly exotic in appearance and, when seen en masse, produces one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles. Like that other very familiar bird, the house sparrow, though, not everything is as rosy as it might seem. The starling’s loud personality and numbers mask a disturbing drop in numbers over the last 50 years. Some may see them as pests, crowding out other species from the garden bird feeder. But if we take them too much for granted, this once incredibly numerous species could become a rarity across the UK.
The Subtly Exotic Starling
At first glance, the starling might seem just a plain, dark bird. However, on closer inspection, they have a beautiful iridescent plumage, full of purples and greens as the light catches it. This glossy, almost oily, colouration makes them look truly exotic. In spring and summer, a bright yellow bill completes the picture. In the winter, the bill is darker, but their plumage is enhanced by the addition of white spots. At all times of year, their wings have buff edges. In Iberia and North Africa, it is replaced as a breeding bird by the very similar spotless starling. Juveniles can confuse the novice birdwatcher as they are a fairly uniform pale brown and look very different from the adults. As they slowly mature, the speckled glossy winter plumage grows in until just a brown head is left to moult.
If starlings are present in an area, they are extremely visible due to their sociable nature and habit of hanging round in large, noisy gangs. They also like to sing from a visible perch nearly all year round. Their songs are incredibly complex, and they often make them more complicated as they get older. They are also excellent mimics and include all sorts of other sounds in their songs and calls, including other bird songs, car alarms and ringing phones. They can even mimic human speech . When birds come into roost at the end of the day, the noise can be deafening. It’s as though they love nothing better than to share the events of the day with their neighbours before settling down for the night.
Food and Family
Starlings are mostly insectivorous. They will eat pretty much any invertebrate they come across. As well as eating insects from the surface of the ground, they will often probe their beaks into the soil. Once the beak is in, they open it to make a bigger hole, enabling them to get at more prey. They eat a lot of leatherjackets (cranefly larvae) in this way, inadvertently helping preserve lawns from the damage the larvae cause. They also commonly follow livestock, finding insects in dung or from the coats of the animals themselves. When invertebrates are in shorter supply, they can adapt their diets and will eat seeds, grains and other plant matter. They have learnt to use garden bird feeders and will noisily squabble over access rights with each other and other species.
Starlings are extremely inventive when it comes to nesting sites. Any sort of cavity will do, whether it’s in a tree, in the eaves of a house or in an air conditioning duct. In Shetland, it seemed as though every stone wall had a starling nest in this last spring and summer. Construction sites have to be careful to block any holes in machinery including exhausts to prevent nesting. I have even seen them nest in a pile of ropes on a boat that wasn’t used often. The nest itself is made of twigs and dry grass and lined with feathers or wool. There are usually four or five eggs, and these are a beautiful pale blue in colour. After two weeks of incubation and a further three weeks in the nest, the chicks fledge. They often follow the harassed parents around as they look for food.
Starling murmurations are one of the UK’s most incredible wildlife spectacles. They are huge aerial manoeuvres by thousands of birds as they swirl in the air and form intricate, flowing, smoke-like patterns. In the winter months, starlings often roost communally. They use natural sites like reedbeds and woods, but also manmade structures such as piers and bridges. As well as British breeding birds, millions of wintering starlings from Northern Europe join these roosts. Murmurations take place as more and more birds arrive before dusk and prepare to settle down into these large roosts.
Scientists think the main reason they perform these large sky dances is to bunch together and confuse potential predators, such as peregrine falcons and marsh harriers. The more birds there are, the harder it is for a raptor to pick out an individual to kill. They may also use the displays to meet and exchange information about where to eat.
Over the last decade or so, researchers have looked at the mechanics of murmurations in more detail to find out how the birds move in relation to one another. They have made some incredible discoveries. A study from 2010 found that there was not a single lead bird dictating movement. They also discovered that starling flocks effectively moved as one unit. Information about changes in direction passed very quickly from bird to bird, however big the flock was. This helps them react to predator attacks quickly. A later study found that individuals coordinated their movements with the seven birds immediately around them. These overlapping groups of seven enable a large flock to move in the way it does.
Starling murmurations are at their best on calm days just before dusk between October and March. Good sites are Ham Wall/Shapwick Heath on the Somerset Levels, Brighton Pier and Leighton Moss in Lancashire. The useful Starlings in the UK website logs recent murmurations. Although they won’t display in the same way, it is also worth visiting a roost as it disperses at dawn as the noise and volume of birds can be incredible.
The starling is undoubtedly still one of our commonest birds with around 1.8 million breeding pairs. Found across most of the UK, it is only absent from the highest uplands in Scotland. It has also been introduced to a number of regions outside of its native Eurasian range, including North America, New Zealand and Australia. However, numbers have declined significantly both here and in Europe over the last 50 years. The BTO’s long-running surveys show that numbers have fallen in the UK by 66% since the mid-1970s.
This large decline means that, like the house sparrow, it is now Red Listed in the UK as a species of high conservation concern. Many large city centre roosts, such as those that used to exist at Bristol Temple Meads Station, have completely gone. Some of our large winter roosts and murmurations are also getting smaller as both UK and European wintering numbers decline.
Conservationists aren’t entirely sure about the causes of this decline. One possible factor is a reduction in food availability. Many scientists are concerned that we are in the middle of an ‘insect apocalypse’, with some estimates suggesting insect populations have declined globally by approximately 75% over the last 50 years. Changes in land use, pesticides and climate change have all contributed to these invertebrate losses. Our increasingly dry summers also mean that it is harder for starlings to get to those insects that are left in the dry, hard soil. RSPB research shows that, in the UK at least, starlings are still breeding successfully. This suggests that they are facing issues once breeding is over. They hope that if they can find out where the problems are, they can start to tackle them and halt the decline.
Starlings are divisive birds. Some see them as the noisy bully boys of the garden bird feeder. But with their exotic plumage, vocal talents and sparky personalities, I think it is impossible not to root for this amazing species. And with numbers falling across much of the UK, I will continue to treasure every encounter I have with them.