Wildlife Column: The starling of the murmurations
Who would have thought that the humble starling would on the one hand be a bird under threat as breeding numbers decline, but on the other hand be a tourism star when millions of birds descend on Britain as winter migrants?
Our visiting starling come from across northern Europe and indeed, when they return north to Russia they are anticipated in the same way we look forward to the springtime swallows. When in winter the starling numbers rise and they gather at massive afternoon roost sites the birds swirl around in dramatic time-knit flocks called murmurations. Their behaviour in closing together to mob predators such as sparrowhawks is truly amazing; like ‘synchronised swimming’ but on a scale of hundreds of thousands of individuals together! Well-known sites like Middleton Moor in the Peak District, or in Somerset’s Avalon Marshes where the birds roost at the RSPB’s nature reserves at Ham Wall or Shapwick Heath. When the roosts are big, regular and (importantly) predictable, then the occurrences can grow into major tourism attractions and help trigger major contributions to the regional leisure economy. Isn’t it remarkable that the humble starling can have such impacts?
However, take a bit of time to have a closer look at the starling if they do visit your garden bird-table. They really are incredibly stunning birds with feathers that gleam iridescently with purple, green, blue and even gold.
I recall as a child not being able to identify my very first starling – because the bird-book just described it as ‘black’ and what I was seeing was certainly not that. They are also intelligent and vocal too. I once rushed outside at my parents’ house in Norton Lees to look for a curlew I could hear calling.
Eventually I realised it was a starling on the television aerial; presumably it had spent a few weeks on a saltmarsh with flocks of starlings. They also do a good impression of, for example, a green woodpecker! Like the crow family starlings are excellent mimics and tend to produce calls and other noises from habitats where they have been recently.
Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and
broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues