Starlings and their dancing murmurations

We are now at the time of year where the nights are drawing in, dusk is earlier and earlier and the starling murmurations are filling the skies.

A murmuration is a term used to describe the roosting and flocking behaviour of starlings, not just flying from A to B, but the ‘dancing’ across the sky. They weave and wheel across the sky, often separating and coming together forming patterns. Often seen during autumn and winter we are now at the start of murmuration season. However, arguably one of the most spectacular natural sights the UK has to offer, these ‘ballets of the skies’ are surprisingly under studied.

While there are a number of known key murmuration sites it is not yet known just how common these sightings are. It is predicted that there are hundreds or thousands of smaller murmuration sites that have not yet been recorded.

Dr Anne Goodenough from the University of Gloucestershire along with the Society of Biology are asking members of the public to help them to record any sightings of starling murmurations across the UK. This can be done by logging the sighting online together with a few details such as where and when the murmuration occurred as well as a little bit about the environment and conditions at the time. The information needed includes the habitat, the climate, how long the murmuration lasts and roughly how many birds were involved (although this is an estimate given that a murmuration could involve anything from 100 birds up to 50,000-60,000). They have already received over 600 reports ranging from Cornwall to John O’Groats.

While it is still not completely understood why starlings perform these aerial acrobatics, there are a number of different theories. The one with the most support is it’s a way of avoid predation. This is based on the idea that a raptor such as a peregrine falcon, a sparrow hawk or an owl would find it very difficult to focus on, and capture, one bird. Other theories suggest it is a form of socialising, signalling a large roost in order to attract other birds to build numbers and to keep warm. It has also been suggested that they do it to exchange information such as good feeding grounds. They often feed miles away from where they roost and return around the same time each evening. The unusual aspect that has many experts stumped is that only European starlings demonstrate such a huge, impressive aerial display.

While the number of birds may seem large they are only a fraction of what there used to be. Huge flocks used to gather over Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow and Belfast, but now you are much more likely to see them in rural areas. Over recent years the starling population has reduced dramatically, falling by 70% putting it on the critical list of UK birds most at risk. The decline is believed to be due to the decrease in permanent pasture, the increase in farm chemicals and a shortage of food and nesting sites.

It is possible to go and see these impressive murmurations at a number of RSPB reserves, including the Avalon Marshes in Somerset which is believed to be where some of the most striking murmurations occur with over a million birds involved. Other locations include Brighton Pier, Aberystwyth Pier and Gretna Green. Early November is the best time to go with a lot of migrant birds coming in.

Click here to report a murmuration sighting

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Abi Gardner

I'm a Ecosystem Services (MSc) student at The University of Edinburgh, with a background in Environmental Geography. I'm passionate about ecology, biogeography, environmental management, sustainability and climate change.

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  1. Avatar Dezra Davies says:

    anyone seen any murmuations lately got the bug after seeing some at leighton and saltholme

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