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Why you should experience a starling murmuration out in the open

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 January 2020

Starlings in murmuration

Starlings in murmuration

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Andy Dalton, gateway manager at Potteric Carr Nature Reserve, tells us why the humble starling is worthy of a closer look.

A starling displays its striking colours. Picture by Mark RobinsonA starling displays its striking colours. Picture by Mark Robinson

The common starling may be one of Yorkshire's most familiar birds but many don't appreciate its dazzling qualities. With fantastic plumage which changes from a glossy green, black and purple sheen - and bright pink legs and a striking yellow bill - during summer to a stunning dark speckled white bird in winter, they're an impressive breed. They live for an average of five years, but the oldest ever recorded was over 20 years old.

A singing male bird will produce a whole array of sounds, each subtly different from the next. This unusual melody was once described to me as a full English breakfast being cooked on a frying pan - spitting, popping and bubbling sounds! Starlings are great mimics too, sometimes copying human-produced sounds such as alarms and even mobile phone rings.

There are almost two million starlings in the UK; though this sounds like a lot, numbers have declined by over 60% in the last 40 years. In fact, the decline has been so sharp starlings have now been added to the Red Data List of species of most conservation concern.

No single reason can explain this decline, but habitat and food loss are key factors. Starlings prefer to feed in open areas, with rich soil full of insects like centipedes, spiders, moths, and earthworms. It's these sorts of open areas which are being lost every day to development and urban sprawl.

There are ways you can help starlings and other struggling birds. If you haven't already, install a bird feeder in your garden to help bridge the gap of the harsher, winter months. Starlings like to nest in cavities- naturally in trees or rock crevices, but also increasingly in roof spaces or even nest boxes. You can set up your own starling nest box in your garden in spring - try vinehousefarm.co.uk.

From late winter onwards, the males will start to 'display' to attract a female. You'll spot them sitting on buildings or trees, loudly singing and displaying their plumage and flapping their wings. Once the autumn migration comes around, our native starlings are quickly joined by a huge influx of their relatives from across the North Sea. Escaping south away from the deep cold, some birds travel from as far away as the Ural Mountains in Russia. And it is during this mass arrival that the starlings' famous, magical spectacle begins to be performed -the murmuration.

No one knows for certain why starlings put on such mesmerising aerial acrobatics, but avoiding predators through safety in numbers is one common theory. These dazzling dances attract more and more birds as they progress, so another theory is that the murmuration is a way for birds to "share" news of the best local feeding areas. Fun fact: it is called a murmuration not after the dance, but after the ethereal noise that follows. Once the birds eventually settle down to roost, they congregate very closely together and 'murmur' all as one.

A starling murmuration fills the sky. Picture by Steve WilsonA starling murmuration fills the sky. Picture by Steve Wilson

Of course, describing a starling murmuration rarely does it justice - the best thing is to see it for yourself. Luckily, this is the best time of year to do so. Potteric Carr nature reserve near Doncaster is one of the best local places to view starling murmurations; in recent years it has managed to attract several thousand starlings from around the end of October through to the end of February. The birds start to gather around 30 minutes from sunset and can be seen performing across the reserve until they descend down into the extensive reedbeds to roost. 

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