Mes­meris­ing mur­mu­ra­tion

Star­lings in evening spec­tac­u­lar

The Galloway News - - NATURE NOTES - Keith Kirk

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.

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