Watch a star­ling roost at dusk and you could see a spar­rowhawk lurk­ing with evil in­tent, says Pip Web­ster

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Will it be a ‘snow bird’ win­ter?

Black­en­ing through the evening sky, In clouds the star­lings daily fly, To Whit­tle­sea’s reed-wooded mere, And osier holts by rivers near” comes from John Clare’s evoca­tive description of fen­land in Jan­uary. (An osier holt is a place where wil­lows are grown for bas­ket mak­ing.)

When star­lings as­sem­ble in flocks it is said to be a sign of cold weather. Be­fore the early 20th Cen­tury star­lings were seen only as win­ter vis­i­tors in south-west Eng­land and Wales. Mov­ing ahead of the colder weather, they were known as ‘snow birds’ in parts of Wales where lo­cals re­garded their ar­rival as a sign of im­pend­ing snow.

Grass­land is their favourite habi­tat and you can of­ten see large flocks of res­i­dent star­lings, boosted by win­ter mi­grants from north-east Europe, prob­ing grass roots for in­ver­te­brates such as earth­worms and leather­jack­ets (the larva of crane­flies – bet­ter known as daddy-lon­glegs).

In the evening, flocks com­bine into even big­ger night roosts of thou­sands of birds, a favoured lo­ca­tion for star­lings be­ing over wa­ter in reedbeds where the air tem­per­a­ture tends to be slightly higher. The com­bined weight of the birds can even­tu­ally flat­ten the reedbed.

If your nar­row­boat is moored close to a “mur­mu­ra­tion” of star­lings, you will get no peace un­til si­lence sud­denly de­scends. In­di­vid­ual birds are ex­cel­lent mim­ics and the creaky qual­ity of their song gave rise to the old Norfolk name of “wheezer”.

The beau­ti­ful pur­ple and green iridescent plumage of star­lings is less marked in win­ter months since they de­velop dense white or buff ar­row­head-shaped spots in the au­tumn which grad­u­ally wear away through the win­ter. Dur­ing win­ter and spring the sex of Star­lings can be dis­tin­guished by the colour of the base of the bill: ap­pro­pri­ately, pink for fe­males and blue for males!

If you watch a star­ling roost at dusk you may see a spar­rowhawk lurk­ing – with evil in­tent. Un­like the more com­mon kestrel, spar­rowhawks never hover, but adopt a “guer­rilla”-style hunt­ing tech­nique: a reg­u­lar tac­tic is to ac­cel­er­ate along one side of a hedge, then flip over the top and grab the prey with long talons. They will even take young moorhens from off the wa­ter.

Their long tail feath­ers and short rounded wing pro­file are de­signed for ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity and the lack of leaves in win­ter makes their short hunt­ing bursts eas­ier to ob­serve. The un­for­tu­nate cap­tive is plucked be­fore be­ing eaten.

The male, our small­est rap­tor, is a hand­some crea­ture: slate-blue-grey above with ru­fous-barred un­der­parts. In the age of fal­conry, the “mus­ket” was a hawk for a priest; the name sub­se­quently be­ing used for a type of cross­bow bolt and then a hand gun.

The sexes ex­hibit the largest size dif­fer­ence of any rap­tor, the fe­male be­ing twice as heavy with duller, browner plumage – and she takes larger prey.

Low-flying, ag­ile hunters are more eas­ily spot­ted by sev­eral pairs of eyes, and this is the prime rea­son that smaller birds gather to­gether into mixed flocks in the depths of win­ter.

Look­ing at the bare branches of win­ter trees and hedges along the tow­path, you may won­der where all of the birds have gone. A sud­den chat­ter of ac­tiv­ity, and a mixed flock of tits, finches and other small birds seems to be feed­ing all around you be­fore they just as quickly move on – a ‘bird wave’.

Com­pe­ti­tion for food is not as great as you might think since each species has a dif­fer­ent feed­ing niche: great tits work through the leaf-lit­ter on the ground, green­finches pick the seeds out of fruit, and the tiny long-tailed tits hunt for in­sects high in the mesh of thin twigs at the top of the canopy, their long tails pro­vid­ing a coun­ter­bal­ance for their ac­ro­bat­ics.

With eyes at ev­ery level, spar­rowhawks are more likely to be seen and alarm calls are even recog­nised as such by we hu­mans. The flock scat­ters, dis­rupt­ing the con­cen­tra­tion of the hunter.

Keep safe this win­ter.

‘In­di­vid­ual birds are ex­cel­lent mim­ics and the creaky qual­ity of their song gave rise to the old Norfolk name of “wheezer”’

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