Red Arrows, eat your hearts out and vacate the skies for the starling marvel of murmurations is about and has wholly bewitched thousands – including PETER FROST.
ISN’T it nice that the evenings are at last starting to get lighter? Since the clocks sprang forward an hour a week or two ago, I’ve been out in the evenings enjoying the blossom, the spring flowers and that wonderful, low-sinking sun that shows the countryside in the best light.
Recently those slightly brighter twilights have brought me some delightful and, indeed, spectacular nature sightings.
The low, evening sun had thrown the old medieval ridge and furrow field patterns into bold relief. But it was what was happening in the sky above that took my breath away. What I saw was one of the most remarkable phenomena in the entire animal kingdom. It is called a murmuration.
A murmuration is the delightful term used to describe a huge flock of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) all swooping, looping and diving in unison. The birds made incredible patterns in the sky as they performed their tightly packed aerial ballet. It’s completely breathtaking to witness.
Murmurations can involve many hundreds of birds or even many thousands. Some of the biggest of these flight displays have been known to include over a million birds.
The starlings perform these amazing airborne spectaculars for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers — predator birds of prey such as kestrels, sparrowhawks, peregrine falcons, buzzards and other raptors find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands.
Starlings form the murmurations as they gather over their roosting site — and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night. They like to gather in large roosts to keep warm and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas.
Smaller than blackbirds, with a short tail, pointed head and triangular wings, starlings appear black at a distance but when seen closer they are glossy with a sheen of purples and greens.
Their flight is fast and direct and they walk and run confidently on the ground. It is one of our commonest garden birds having a love-hate relationship with gardeners.
It consumes many garden insect pests (below) but can also ruin fruit harvests picking at buds and stealing ripe soft fruit. Most starlings are residents, and most never leave us.
However, this number almost doubles every winter with the arrival of thousands more birds from Europe. Nigel Farage must be doing his nut as the birds wheel and turn triumphantly over Kent after crossing the channel to complete their journey.
Surely, Ukip should be up on Beachy Head with a flight of trained hawks to see the immigrants off. Have they learnt nothing from Donald Trump?
These migrations account for the huge increase in the starling population which occurs when birds from northern Europe arrive to spend the winter in Britain because the weather is relatively mild here and food and shelter are easier to find.
They begin to arrive during September but the majority of starlings will arrive in October, before our winter weather really sets in. Most of the birds coming to Britain are from Scandinavia but one individual, caught in Bedfordshire, had been ringed the previous spring in Lithuania, over a thousand miles away.
Despite the incredible size of today’s flocks, starling numbers are just a fraction of what they used to be. Huge starling flocks used to gather over industrial cities like Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast.
Today, you have a much better chance of seeing the birds and their spectacular mumurations over rural areas.
For the last few years huge flocks have attracted a great deal of attention at Gretna Green. The police had to control the traffic as people flock to see the amazing spectacle.
Likewise tens of thousands of starlings can be seen swirling above Brighton’s beaches and piers each late autumn.
Brighton’s ruined West Pier attracts a spectacular murmuration.
Despite the evidence of these huge flocks, the starling population has fallen by over 80 per cent in recent years, meaning its decline has put it on the critical Red List of British birds most at risk.
As with so many other species, the decline is believed to be due to the loss of permanent pasture, modern farming practices and increased use of farm chemicals. A shortage of food and nesting sites in many parts of Britain also play their part in the decline.
Starlings have an amazing ability to change their internal organs throughout the year as food supplies alter. During the breeding season, starlings rely on invertebrates, especially the larvae of crane flies, a real garden pest known as leatherjackets.
They harvest them from short grassland and meadow. Gardeners love the bird when it clears garden lawns of leatherjackets. In the summer and autumn, they take more seeds and berries including soft fruit from suburban gardens and that isn’t so popular with those same gardeners.
This seasonal shift in diet is matched by a lengthening of their intestine to cope with the increased plant material, which is harder to digest.
Starlings will readily use bird tables and feeders throughout the year. In fact, quite a few garden birdwatchers complain about starlings because they seem to clean out a feeding station in minutes.
Very occasionally you may spot a white, or albino, starling (below). Beautiful birds, but sadly they don’t usually last too long as their colour makes them easy targets for birds of prey.
This albino starling can often be confused with a very rare visitor to Britain, the rosy starling (Pastor roseus) (below). Sometimes known as the pink starling, one has been causing much excitement among birdwatchers and photographers in the last week or so by taking up residence in Crawley.
London twitchers have been out in force to see the pink and black bird that has made the 5,500 mile journey from its winter home in India and Sri Lanka.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 14 April 2017. It is an expanded version of an article that appeared in Frosty’s Nature Notes in the Braunston Village News.