Icelandic colonists from Europe (no, not the Vikings!)

Starlings resting and singing on a high vantage point in Reykjavic

In my book “The Starling” (Oxford University Press), published in 1984 (doesn’t seem like 33 years ago!) I noted the then relatively recent colonisation of Iceland by breeding Starlings. They were first recorded breeding in the south-east of the island, at Hornafjörŏur in 1940 and then in Reykjavic in 1960. This was at a time when Starling numbers and distribution had reached a peak in north-western Europe, following an increase that probably started in the mid-19th century. Since the 1960s, however, Starling numbers have declined markedly over north-western Europe, with the breeding population in Britain falling by around 70% during the last 50 years, and the decrease in the species’ numbers and breeding range in northern Europe has also led to a fall in the number of migrant Starlings that winter in Britain.

Despite this decline on the continent, however, the Starling appears to have maintained its status in Iceland and, during our brief visit in March 2017, it was the most numerous land bird that we saw in Reykjavic and in farming areas to the south.

Tell-tale signs of roosting starlings: droppings on the ledges used as sleeping accommodation

In the city it was present in small flocks and many birds roosted communally at night on a traditional building close to the City Pond, their presence betrayed by noisy song and squawking in the evenings, and also by the copious droppings on the ledges on which they slept. By day Starlings fed on grassy areas, probing for invertebrates in or just under the soil surface, and rested and sang from prominent perches on television aerials and trees. With the approach of the breeding season males spent time during the day in full song, with throat feathers fluffed out and sometimes flailing their wings in display. We also saw some carrying nest material, indicating that the commencement of breeding cannot be far ahead.

 

A ringed Starling at the City Pond in Reykjavic

For me it was encouraging to see this fairly recent colonist doing so well in comparison with its continental conspecifics, whose demise is most likely associated with various facets of agricultural intensification. One individual, that I photographed on a grass verge near the bridge over City Pond, had a numbered metal ring on its right leg. According to Mr Gudmundur A Gudmundsson, of the Icelandic Bird Ringing Centre, Icelandic Institute of Natural History, 3611 Starlings have been ringed in Iceland, but onlty two birds ringed elsewhere (Scotland and Sweden) have been found in Iceland, so our bird is most likely to have been one of Iceland;s resident birds. But a great thrill to see it, and its compatriots!

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