starlings are sweeping around crazy shoals
Walking up the road to get the paper a few days ago I was struck by the appearance of an unusual looking bird. It was black with brownish markings around its neck. As it hopped across someone's garden and disappeared under a hedge I tried to work out what it was. It was a similar size to a blackbird but its beak was sharper. It then became obvious that it was a starling and the light had caught its feathers strangely. The usual iridescence had reflected it back much duller than if it had not been half-hidden by a bush.
Starlings are beautiful birds but tend to be overshadowed by their gaudier cousins Jays who, although not commonly seen, are the British Bird of Paradise. However, starlings were once so common that in the 1980s they were chased out of Leicester Square because of the noise and droppings. When a large Christmas tree was put up in Trafalgar Square the starlings thought it was for them. The good burghers of London weren't so charitable. Also, they must have been deemed too common to be included in the Brooke Bond picture card book Wild Birds in Britain in 1965. Even back in 1932 the Players Transfer (sic) book Wild Birds missed them out. This latter book was a collection of photos that look more like very beautiful paintings taken by one Oliver G. Pike as opposed to the lovely paintings by C. F. Tunnicliffe in the Brooke Bond ones. My dad must have smoked a lot of Player's Medium Navy Cut to collect the amount of old 1930's cigarette cards I inherited from him!
Over the past few years - probably due to the popularity of BBC nature programmes like Autumn Watch - the phenomenon of murmurations have become a spectator sport. As a fairly air-headed (gormless?) child in the 1960s I don't remember ever having seen such a spectacle much like I didn't see a cormorant until I was about 17. Now they are everywhere - no joke, I spotted two sitting on top of streetlights over the M56 over Christmas. It's alright, don't fret, I wasn't driving. My son-in-law was taking me to my second ever football match*. But murmurations really are an amazing sight.
A few years ago on leaving the local Morrison's supermarket I was surprised by the crowds standing around in the car park all looking to the skies in awe. I thought an alien invasion had started but it was the sight of a huge murmuration just above us that had stopped people in their tracks. The beautiful swooping, swiping and circling dance took people's breath away. Many, obviously, filmed the phenomenon on their phones, as did I. It appears that whilst the flocks that make up the murmuration are not of those 100,000 plus of earlier last century but still large enough to be awe-inspiring. Something many had only witnessed on their tvs was being performed in front of them. We watched like Tom Cruise and his neighbours as the aliens began their invasion in War of the Worlds. On the edgelands between Felixstowe docks and the housing estate, these amazing sky-dancers roost after exhausting themselves with an ancient dance that nobody really knows why they do it. Here by the docks on the coast where the sea brabbles and hob-gobs** where I've witnessed partridges, of all things, and noticed the rise in cormorants and egrets, the starlings have settled for the late Autumn and early Winter. They've been here for a good few years now and it's now become something that happens at four o'clock every evening just as Dusk begins to descend. Here's my not very good record of it.
I mentioned above that nobody really seems to be able to explain this behaviour which is also seen in other species. Starling's cousins rooks do it with jackdaws and sometimes starlings on the periphery of their colonies. In his book Crow Country, Mark Cocker suggests that there is a theory that birds use such massive meetings as a form of "information centres". So, for example, a well-fed attractive and healthy bird could be noticed and followed next day to its feeding grounds. Perhaps there's just safety in numbers. Certainly many species snuggle up to each other in their roosts to drive the cold winter away and generate some warmth.
In Norfolk, Robert Macfarlane notes in his masterful glossary of natural language, Landmarks, that starlings are called wheezers but not why. The noise of the birds whilst they perform this ballet is obviously loud but it's joyful and delightful to witness.
|From my father's Player's cigarette card album.|
I love the comment that they make good pets!
** Suffolk words from Landmarks - a wonderful book that attempts to hold on to words of the natural world from around the British Isles. It's worth having a copy to hand - and you can get one for a couple of quid from The Works.