Watching a murmuration of starlings is so close to watching underwater films of shoals of small fish it makes me realise how similar these two mediums are… both with oxygen and water – just in different ratios: they have the same challenges, the same opportunities for both predator and prey being very much three or is it four dimensional?
This Blog is part of the DIVERSIFLY project: For more details on the project go here
Do we give a single Starling much thought?
Smaller than blackbirds, with a short tail, pointed head, triangular wings, starlings look black at a distance but when seen closer they are very glossy with a sheen of purples and greens. Their flight is fast and direct and they walk and run confidently on the ground.
Starlings are the most common occupants of our domestic roof space
The male builds an untidy nest of dried grass and straw in tree hole, on cliff, or building; female lines it with feathers or moss
They feed mostly on leatherjackets, other insects, earthworms, spiders, snails, slugs, fruit, seeds roots, berries…
In Birds Britannica it says this
The archetypal view of the starling involves the male perched on a rooftop or television aerial, wings flicking intermittently and throat hackles raised as it lets fly with a ‘weird array of ecstatic noises that pass for a song’. The sheer familiarity and almost year-round delivery make the performance one of the most underrated of all out common bird songs…’ a lively rambling medley of throaty warbling, chirruping, clicking, and gurgling sounds interspersed with musical whistles and pervaded by a peculiar creaky quality’. An old Norfolk name for the starling is Wheezer
You can hear a recording of their song here
They are brilliant mimics too, it says – of cat, goat, frog, other birds, wolf whistles. Pliny back in ancient Rome claimed that starlings had been taught to speak Latin and Greek as they could repeat whole sentences.
But when dusk comes… and they form a murmuration … now thats when our interest in them soars!
In 1949 they landed in such flocks on the hands of Big Ben that they stopped the clock. This, together with the noise and droppings led to political concern with lengthy discussions in parliament, so tells Birds Britannica. In the countryside they have been known to snap boughs off trees by sheer weight of numbers. Murmurations can number tens of thousands.
In 1954 an entire episode of The Goon Show was devoted to their removal from London: through the use of rice puddings fired by catapults and other equally inventive ideas…
Mary Oliver has written a poem about a Starling Murmuration
The following poem is by Jeff Phelps, who has kindly given me permission to reproduce it here. It was first published in Cannon’s Mouth (March 2015) His recent wonderful pamphlet Wolverhampton Madonna is available from Offa’s Press here:
For me it is not flying as you would see it;
not swimming in air,
but dancing, unchoreographed
a single samba,
a call that each day I forget
and only each evening remember.
The earth is a black wheel,
concentration in a wing,
tilts of wood and field,
a mind bigger than my own
that turns me on a whim
and shapes me like a hand on a potter’s wheel
squeezing me out. I hear
the clatter of wings.
Now I am the centre
where it is black and I close eyes
and fly vivid blind.
Now I am the edge,
a current I make myself,
where there is no up or down,
only swerving joy and air after a full day’s feeding.
Then the earth comes up to meet me.
We pour into it like iron filings,
fruit pips spat into hedges.
I settle, shake out ticks and dust,
become my noisy,
Here you can read Starlings have Come by Ted Hughes
and this poem is by Steve Griffiths (first published in Surfacing, Cinnamon Press, 2012) – thanks go out to Steve for allowing me to include it here:
All my sense
of the fluidity of form
comes from the November
of fifteen hundred starlings
for the mathematical,
valedictory joy of it:
they turn in on themselves
in a glove
that fills the whole
dusk above the water,
and out, and in again
but where is the hand they enclose
before they contract
suddenly to roost
on a passive black geometry
reflecting on the day
in their small individual
beneath a pier,
joined by diminishing afterthoughts
to perfect their form
which is hidden,
trembles, chatters and is still?
Experts think that starlings do “it” for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands. They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas. They gather over their roosting site, and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night.
Long-term monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) shows that starling numbers have fallen by 66 per cent in Britain since the mid-1970s. Because of this decline in numbers, the starling is red listed as a bird of high conservation concern.
Here are some images I have found online:
This Blog is part of a series of Blogs that are part of the Fair Acre Press project – DIVERSIFLY: everyday encounters with the birds of Britain’s towns and cities. For more details on the project go here