Thrilled by Starlings

A male Starling in full song (Photo: Chris Feare)

No, not a mind-boggling “murmuration” of thousands of Starlings in highly synchronised manoeuvres, just six of them in a quick fly-past.

I have been silent on my blog site for far too long. Following our return from investigating Myna problems on Mayotte late last year (see blog of 2 November 2019) I returned to UK, but Christine remained in Seychelles. Shortly after I left, pneumonia incapacitated her for about three months. Our plan for her to come to UK in March was then thwarted by the advent of covid-19, which prevented travel for both of us and has led to my lockdown at home.

I live in a small village in south-east England, in an area of mixed woodland, gardens, grassland (mainly for horses and sheep, with some llamas), and limited arable production, while in front of my house is a well-kept green used for cricket matches in summer and general recreation at other times. When I first moved here in 1993, flocks of starlings probed the turf on the green for insects and their larvae and noisily squabbled over food on my garden bird table and hanging feeders. In a large conifer tree behind my garden 2-300 starlings roosted at night in winter.

Starlings eating high energy food intended for cattle at a feedlot in southern England, 1970s (Photo: Chris Feare)

Prior to moving to this village, I had studied Starlings while working for the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The huge Starling population of the British Isles was causing extensive economic damage on farms by eating animal feed (with an associated risk of introducing disease among farm animals), ripening fruit (especially cherries) and germinating crops. In addition, vast flocks posed a potential bird strike hazard near military and civil airports and large numbers roosted at night in city centres, fouling buildings and parked vehicles, and rendering footpaths and roads dangerously slippery with their copious droppings.

Many thousands of Starlings assembling and performing their “murmuration” prior to roosting for the night in a small conifer woodland in Lincolnshire, UK, in the 1970s. When arriving at the roost site each evening the birds crossed the approach path to an air force base, presenting a bird strike risk for the jet aircraft (Photo: Chris Feare)

During my studies the UK Starling population appeared to be in decline, but it was unclear whether this represented a downturn during cyclic fluctuations in Starling numbers, or the start of a long-lasting decline (in 1987 I write a short article on this for the British Trust for Ornithology’s newsletter “BTO News”). Unfortunately, it has proved to be a long-term decline which continues today, as a result of which we now have less than a one-fifth of the Starlings in UK that we had in the 1970s.

My own experience in my part of the village reflects the bird’s national status. I have not seen a Starling in my garden (despite putting food out) or on the cricket green since the turn of the century. A very small number of Starlings still survives in a part of the village close to grass fields used for grazing horses, sheep and llamas but I have not seen them venturing in my direction.

During the covid-19 lockdown, many people in village indulge in the “clap for carers” (started in Europe in appreciation of all the people who care for infected and vulnerable people, at considerable risk to themselves and their families), at 2000 h on Thursday evenings. My kind neighbours who do all my food shopping while I am confined to my house and garden, and I join in the clapping, observing the government’s social distancing rules. While waiting for the striking bell of the village church on 21 May, I was amazed to see a group of six Starlings fling down the edge of the cricket green and over my house, heading towards that part of the village where a few remain. During my studies for the Ministry of Agriculture I would never have believed that the sighting of a small party of Starlings would engender such excitement!

Trees and woodland floor covered in droppings from the roosting Starlings, Lincolnshire, late 1970s. The dropping on the ground were up to half a metre deep (Photo: Chris Feare)

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