COLUMN: One of nature’s true spectacles

Chris Andrews
Chris Andrews

Starlings aren’t always everyone’s favourite, writes Dr Chris Andrews.

They can descend upon your bird feeders in a big mob, sending smaller birds diving for cover as they squabble over the seeds and fat balls. Indeed, some people dismiss them as mere noisy black brutes, and even ask how to deter them. But before you do so, take a moment to look again. For starters, they aren’t black. Their feathers are a deep, glossy mix of purple and black, covered with yellow ‘stars’. Rather attractive, if they get the sun on them.

Now many birds use how beautifully they can sing to attract a mate, or how loudly. With starlings, it is a little bit different. The more variation in the song, the more impressive it is to the ladies. A standard starling song is a jumble of whistles and chattering. How to make this better? Well, they listen to what other birds are doing, and copy them.

This is the time of year when you are likely to start to experience these feats of vocal dexterity. This does sometimes bring them into conflict with humans. They do rather like nesting in people’s roofs, I have some clattering around in my roof space at home. Not everyone appreciates this, and modern housing is often made birdproof. This is one possible reason for the recent decline in their numbers. A drop of two thirds, over the last thirty years.

Why should you care? Well, aside from the loss of any species, starlings do have an extra special habit. In the winter months, they gather at dusk before roosting in large flocks in reedbeds, trees or abandoned buildings. These flocks are a spectacular sight as they writhe and twist, like smoke blowing in the wind. An aerial ballet of birds, with not a single collision. It is one of nature’s true spectacles, and one we’ve been enjoying this winter at Frampton Marsh with up to 7,000 birds present.

Dr Chris Andrews is a visitor experience manager at RSPB Frampton Marsh.