Starlings in evening spectacular
Although we have a resident population of starlings, each winter millions of migrant birds arrive in the UK from as far away as Russia.
During the day the birds feed in our towns, as well as the countryside, but as night approaches they head for what are often traditional roost sites. It has been suggested that the birds will fly from a 30-mile radius to reach the roost and, as such, they don’t all arrive at once.
They start arriving between 3.30pm and 4pm, depending on the weather. As the first 20 or so arrive, they are quickly followed by several much larger flocks until the sky is covered with birds.
The main flock will wheel across the sky in one synchronised, twisting mass. As we watched, and photographed, more birds arrived until the sky was black with starlings; maybe 40,000-plus. A scene from Hitchcock’s film The Birds came to mind.
Each night is different. Sometimes the birds just fly back and forth covering a huge area of sky all around you, occasionally swooping down and skimming the ground before rising steeply again.
It’s only when a sparrowhawk or a peregrine falcon arrives, looking for what would on the face of it seem like an easy meal, that the flock will twist and turn, making unusual shapes as the birds try to avoid becoming supper to one of these predators. Some nights there are several species of raptors in attendance.
Even if you are not a true wildlife enthusiast, you cannot fail to be impressed by such an aerobatic display involving so many birds, apparently without collisions, silhouetted against an evening sky. Almost hypnotic, this type of gathering is known as a murmuration of starlings.
I don’t think anyone knows what finally triggers the first birds to head into what in our case was a reed bed, but once it’s made the trail of birds looks like water swirling down the plughole as they pour from the sky. Within minutes, the whole flock is in.
If it’s a still night and you listen carefully you may hear their chattering calls as they jostle for position in the reeds before they finally settle and everything is silent. Around 20 minutes from start to finish and the birds are all in for the night, although on most occasions – a bit like us humans – there are a few tail-end Charlies.
Starlings are birds with character but for some reason many people try to deter them from their bird tables, seeing them as noisy pests. Forget that attitude – starlings are tenacious and adaptable, beautifully marked and entertaining to watch.
Although their numbers increase in the winter as migrants arrive, our own population has crashed in recent years. Long-term monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology shows numbers have fallen by 70 per cent in Britain since the mid-1970s, meaning they are now on the critical list of UK birds most at risk.
The decline is believed to be due to the loss of permanent pasture, increased use of farm chemicals and a shortage of food and nesting sites.
During the winter a starling will look quite spotty from a distance. These are not actually spots but light-coloured tips to the feathers. However, they have one final trick before spring arrives and the males start displaying to attract a mate.
They say a leopard can’t changes its spots but a starling can. By the time the breeding season comes around, most starlings will look very different, even without moulting any feathers.
The reason is because those spots are on the very tips of the feathers and are the bits that wear first which is why starlings look sleek and glossy in spring.
Murmuration Starlings near Castle Douglas.