While Notes from the Sticks is on holiday, we are republishing some earlier columns. This first appeared on November 28, 2020.
I THINK our spirits need lifting this week – mine certainly do. So here is one of the most incredible sights in nature, and one of the most inexplicable.
Everyone knows the European common starling (Sturnus vulgaris).
Some are not keen on them but I think they are very handsome with their speckles and iridescent feathers. Certainly they can dominate bird feeders but they are not as bad as grey squirrels. They largely eat insects and invertebrates, as well as small amphibians and lizards, but they also enjoy seeds, grains and food waste. I saw a TV programme ages ago which showed that when feeding their chicks they will fly long distances and bypass easy sources of food to ensure that the young birds get a balanced diet.
They nest in cavities such as tree holes and nest boxes. The male starts to build a nest and decorates it with flowers and fresh greenery to attract a female. When the female moves in she throws out all the ornamentation and they complete the nest together. They typically have four or five young and you often see the harassed adults being pursued by their noisy chicks. As you can see from this video the chicks are quick on the uptake and soon learn to feed themselves.
The population has declined significantly over the last 50 years or so, probably due to changing farming practices, but there are still large numbers of starlings around. Which brings me to the point of this article: in autumn and winter they often gather in vast flocks called murmurations, sometimes millions strong. Usually before roosting, they take off at some invisible signal and fly in a tight formation, frequently changing shape, seemingly without any leader. These flights are thought to be a defence against birds of prey such as peregrine falcons or sparrowhawks. But how do they do it? How do they all change course at the same moment? How do they not collide with each other? It is presumed that each bird reacts almost instantaneously to the movement of the one next to it, but it is still amazing. And in any case, if they want to avoid birds of prey, would they not do better to stay in trees rather than flying? It is hard to escape the idea that they are doing it because they enjoy it.
I have never been lucky enough to see one of these murmurations, but there are quite a few videos on YouTube and I have selected some. I hope you find them as wonderful as I do. (You might want to turn down the volume if, like me, you find it entirely possible to watch wildlife videos without intrusive music.)
I was heartened to see the headline ‘I’m A Celebrity “investigated by police” over bushtucker trials’ this week, but it turned out that it was not the fact that small creatures were being killed for entertainment that was at issue, but that non-native species were being introduced to Wales, where the series is being filmed during lockdown. I detest the casual cruelty to living things in I’m A Celebrity. More than that, it encourages an attitude that they are disposable and that killing them for entertainment is acceptable. The show is popular with children and it upsets me that this is the message they are being given.