Suddenly the weekend is upon us again. The working week has taken its toll, with Friday being particularly tough. It has left an emotional hangover lingering well into Saturday, with the metaphorical dementors hovering over my shoulder once again. But no chance of a duvet day as I play the role of working mum on her second ‘job’- running about trying to catch up on all of the household chores I haven’t completed during the week. By 4pm (having been up with the mini farmers since 7am) I really, really needed a break. Fortunately it was tea time, so whilst F took the mini farmers in for tea, I headed off in search of Starlings.
Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are listed on the RSPB Red status list. This may come as a surprise, as they are still one of the most abundant birds at UK bird tables. However, European flocks have declined substantially (by 80%) over recent years.
At first glance,these birds are extraordinarily beautiful. Dappled plumage, gleaming iridescent green and purple-black as it catches the light.They are noisy and gregarious, full of personality. Their mechanical song, full of clicks, whirs and chirrups is delightful to listen to. Delightful, that is in, when there are only one or two.
Autumn time sees the arrival of hundreds if not thousands of starlings to our farmland. This year they seem to have arrived a bit later than usual, normally arriving by the 19th. Over the past few weeks they have appeared in small flocks of 10 or 20 birds, but by the end of this week our trees were adorned with thousands of them.
The birds spend their days roosting in trees around the farm, heading down to the fields or into the cattle sheds to feed. Just before dusk they start to gather, getting ready to head off for their night time roosts, in reed beds, woods or even farm buildings. As daylight fades they come together in flocks until their number reaches into the hundreds of thousands. This is the time to see their aerial performances, the spectacle of the murmuration.
If you have witnessed a murmuration you will know how mesmerising they are. Thousands of small bodies seemingly flying as one, a massive feathery swarm that shape shifts, dives and belly rolls over your head. Why it occurs is a bit of a mystery. Varies theories have been postulated, including sensible suggestions of dilution effect (whereby the large flock of starlings will make it harder for a predator to single out an individual victim as prey) and heat conservation. Whatever the reason it is still a sight to behold.
As I make my way across the Croft field a flock of starlings rises up from beyond the field boundary hedge. It spirals upwards, tornado like, before splitting in two. One flock settles back down behind the hedge, the other atop a sycamore tree.
A distant honking signals the arrival of geese. According to F these have been coming to feed on the stubble aftermath for several weeks now, but I haven’t had the chance to see them. Sure enough they perform a fly past, in v formation, before banking right and landing in the stubble. I later count 70 individuals, honking and waddling their way across the shorn field.
I make it to the gate between the croft and the barley stubble field. From the middle of the field came a tidal whoosh and crash as hundreds of starlings took off as one. They swirled overhead, individual dots set in almost Brownian motion across the steel grey sky. Like a cloud of midges on a summer evening, the hover over head, swooping and soaring around the field margin before settling back down again. Apparently each bird’s movement influences the flight pattern of its closest seven neighbours only, which explains the fluidity of their flight en masse.
Despite my awe at murmurations I must confess to having a love hate relationship with S.vulgaris. The zoologist in me sees a fascinating bird, capable of creating one of natures most amazing phenomenon. After several years of living on a farm and working with other farms where starling flocks roost, I can also see the downside. Every year our cows, and cattle on other farms, suffer from Starling pressure. Cow feed is an easy free meal for our feathered friends, and it is nigh on impossible to keep them out of the barns. We have tried everything, from bird scaring devices to mesh bird screens, and even helium balloons (a pink flamingo worked for a short while!)The sheer number of birds that arrive on the farm means that a lot of food is eaten, food that is meant for the dairy cows. The cows can even become ill, with stary coats, and look a sorry sight if they end up covered in starling poo. Its not just the cows that suffer either. After a couple of days of living with thousands of starlings outside your front door, the novelty soon wears off. Everything gets covered in starling droppings, and their incessant chatter en masse is deafening! I can understand why people (including myself) get fed up with them. I guess this is just one small scale example of living with conservation- the birds are protected under law. We live in an area which provides suitable habitat for them to roost. Loss of permanent pasture and pesticide use has been attributed to the decline in Starling numbers, but as you are now more likely to see a rural rather than urban starling, questions need to be asked about what has happened to push the birds out of the towns where they used to roost historically (e.g Manchester and Newcastle.)
As a result of our fields full of winter stubble and plentiful supply of easy feed we end up living cheek by beak with thousands of starlings for approximately 6 months of the year. We have to put up with a lot of noise and mess, to the point that 2 year old C refers to all bird poo as ‘naughty starling poo’! On the flip side, we do get to witness spectacular murmurations without having to venture too far at all.