Despite being the second most popular bird in the UK (according to the Big Garden Birdwatch) I am not very well acquainted with the starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Whether it is the locations I have lived in, the habitat types of the gardens I have known or perhaps a fatal identification error in mistaking them for blackbirds, these conspicuous birds have slipped my notice for sometime.
While I don’t doubt that they are numerous in the gardens of others, the Starling has undergone a precipitous decline in other habitats and is now a UK conservation priority (though not in wider Europe where it’s range extends to). The intensification and specialisation of agriculture and changes in land use are attributed with it’s decline in the wider countryside. So, not looking so rosy in the fields then. What about those gardens then? The Garden Birdwatch counts are encouraging aren’t they? Well yes, you don’t get to the number two spot by being totally absent. But like so many of the UK’s birds, perhaps they are now dependent on our gardens as a last refuge?
Now, to be totally fair, the starlings have behavioural traits that jar with the genteel English country garden image, descending as they do in petroleum coloured, babbling flock sizes comparable to biblical plagues, ravaging bird feeders and leaving the digested remains behind as a token of their gratitude. This bad house-guest behaviour has prompted many people to ask the wisdom of the internet how to keep these revellers out of their gardens. But it is the synchronicity of these flocks that give rise to the mesmerizing spectacle of the murmuration – a show like no other in nature. Whisper it, but there is something hypocritical about wanting to feed birds in the garden but only certain types of birds, a whiff of bird-based discrimination perhaps?
Who wouldn’t want to party with the starlings I say? The starling has such a gift for karaoke that it has been known to impersonate birds as diverse as a Curlew, a House Sparrow and a Crow. Watching out of the window at the individual singing his little lungs out I could well believe this.
I enjoyed seeing these Marmite birds up close – for me I would love to have their effusive, explosive presence in my garden. Sadly I think it is not big enough to be considered for hosting their raucous parties, and I must satisfy my curiosity with distant views of their clouds of bodies swooping as one over the nation’s motorways and open spaces in Autumn.