Starling: Star of the Skies

The common starling. Sturnus vulgaris. To some, an intelligent, fascinating and strangely charming bird, whilst to others, well, to put it bluntly, something of a nuisance. The one common complaint that I hear about this little bird is, in all honesty, pretty justified. So what is this complaint? Is he rude? Is he a thief? Does he attack each individual that comes into his sight for no apparent reason? No. In fact, he’s just a bit noisy. Nothing to hold against him though, surely? After all, we’re all a little noisy at some point, right? Where I live, there is a particular house with gorgeous brick work that has old open pipes dotted about it. They are deep and sheltered and provide excellent nesting sites for a number of starling pairs. In the spring and summer, his house looks more like the local starling hang out, than a home. But there is more to this bird than meets the eye, or indeed, the ear.

So, let’s start with the basics. Best place to start, if not sometimes a little dull. Nevertheless, I won’t let that discourage me! So, the starling is a passerine bird, slightly smaller than a blackbird, and can be seen sporting glossy green and purple feathers during the spring and summertime. When it comes to breeding, our starlings are currently, possibly right this very second, in mid-april, at their busiest, as they build nests and begin to lay their eggs. The starling is considered a common bird and although it remains one of the most common garden species, it is in fact in decline. Yep, it’s that word again. But the starling is so in decline that, as surprising as it may seem, he is on the Red List of ‘Birds of Conservation Concern.’ Currently, the populations of starlings have declined dramatically throughout northern Europe, with only 15% of juveniles surviving their first year. This decline, which began in the 1980s in the UK, is a rather mysterious one, as the exact reasons for it are yet to be identified. There are of course theories, which include a possible reduction in food availability. Starlings depend almost entirely upon soil invertebrates as their food source, consequently, a reduction in invertebrate populations, or a change in their availability due to shifting climates, could be impacting our starlings. In addition, the loss of permanent pasture and increased use of farming chemicals are also thought to be affecting their numbers. Indeed, since the 1970s, our starling numbers have decreased by 66%.

But enough of the depressing statistics and the news that another fabulous species is on the Red List. After all, starlings are known as being feisty and tenacious little characters and hopefully, with a little help from us, we will not see them disappearing from our lands anytime soon. So, now that we’ve covered the generic facts and the present concerns, it may (or may not) surprise you to know that this little bird has rather a rich and, in some cases, famous, cultural history. In fact, in the past they have even been referred to as ‘a poor man’s dog’ (lucky poor man!), because chicks are so easy to hand rear and look after. Another famous fact about starlings, is their ability to be quite the gifted mimics. Indeed, Pliny the Elder said that starlings could be taught words and even sentences in both Latin and Greek, whilst Shakespeare referenced the starling as a mimic in ‘Henry IV’. Impressive history so far, but even more impressive, is their link to the great Mozart! That’s right, because Mozart had his very own pet starling, which could supposedly sing part of his famous Piano Concerto in G Major! In fact, Mozart became so attached to his bird, that when it passed away, he held an elaborate private funeral for him!

So, there have been many who have owned starlings, and all have referenced their mimicry skills. It’s making me quite fancy my own starling, the mischief we could cause….anyway..Unfortunately for the starling, not everything is so light-hearted. In a number of Mediterranean countries, starlings find themselves on the menu. Apparently, the meat is tough and they are therefore used predominantly in stews and pates!

But there is one thing associated with this bird that we haven’t mentioned. Something, which many immediately associate with the starling. What is it? Murmuration exaltation!

No, its not some bizarre tropical disease, but quite simply the phrase used to describe those great starling flocks that sweep acrobatically across the sky. But I bet some of you already knew that. So, what is it? Well it’s something of an ariel display, with thousands of starlings moving and weaving together in a fabulous synchronised fashion. We’ve all seen one, whether it be right in front of our eyes, or on the television, and it is rather fascinating. But why do they do it? Is it the starling version of the red arrows, but everyone gets involved? Or is it some kind of ritual? Well, we don’t know the exact reason, but it has been suggested it is done as a defence against predators such as peregrine falcons. After all, it would be pretty difficult to pick out a single bird in a great flock that seemingly moves as one. This behaviour is usually seen over roosting sites in Autumn, with the best time to catch a glimpse of one being around early evening, just before dusk. Some of the most well known and popular areas to catch these murmurations include Gretna Green, Sussex and even Brighton Pier.

So, a little introduction to the starling. Hopefully, it has done something to dispel the myth that they are simply ‘noisy and rude’ little birds, who like to disrupt a quiet country neighbourhood. They are intelligent, masters of mimicry, subjects of Shakespeare and even a companion of Mozart! Ladies and Gentlemen, the starling.


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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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