The greatest show on Earth
Brought to you by the humble starling.
There are starlings living in my roof.
They nest in the soffits, and in the spring squabbling families vie for space. When I’m laying in bed I can hear the pitter patter of feet as they run up and down outside the window.
I never want the starlings to move. I find their company joyous and uplifting. Many times I’ve looked out of the window to find big black eyes staring back at me from a gap in the roof. Once, a starling decided to enter the flat and flew around for a while before settling on the curtain pole.
They are cheeky, noisy, wonderful characters, and at this time of year they flock together to put on one of Mother Earth’s greatest spectacles.
As the sun begins to fade on a winter’s day, something unspoken will happen. It might be a group of three or four starlings, testing their wings. It might be a few groups of starlings, racing each other. But soon, others will join. Flocks will grow. And - when the time is right - the real show begins.
Also known as ‘Black Sun’, a starling murmuration is a sight to behold. A malleable, warping, shifting mass of light and shadow as thousands of starlings move as one. It pulsates in a mesmerising rhythm, and when it passes overhead the sound of thousands of starling wings washes over you like an ocean wave.
As the winter sunset darkens, the starlings settle down to roost.
Nobody is entirely sure why they do it, although there are plenty of theories.
Perhaps flocking together and moving unpredictably confuses and intimidates predators, making it impossible for a hawk to pick out an individual.
Perhaps the movement keeps them warm before the long winter night sets in.
Perhaps they’re just having fun.
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Starlings have made themselves comfortably at home in both rural and urban areas. The retail park up the road from me is crawling with Starlings dining out on leftover pasties from Greggs.
But they are still not immune from the same threats facing all UK birds.
Since 1980, over 60% of our birds have vanished from the skies. Much of this is driven by changes in land use. Intensive agriculture and increased use of pesticides wipe out insect populations, depriving birds of food. The replacement of grass with astroturf and concrete further reduces food sources such as worms and crane fly larvae in urban areas and gardens. Harsh, sudden winters and record-breaking summer heatwaves leave populations struggling to cope as our climate changes rapidly.
It’s not necessarily obvious. If I go outside after writing this, chances are pretty high that I’ll see a starling and my spirits will be lifted. They regularly top the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch as being one of our most common garden birds. But the national picture is different. Starlings have featured on the UK’s Red List of threatened species for the last 20 years. They continue to decline today.
The story of the starling is once more reflective of the state of nature across the country and around the world. I watch them from my window, singing and chatting and playing. I watch them launch from Brighton pier in their thousands, a thrumming, living mass of energy, the beating heart of the winter sky. And I can’t help but wonder what our children will see when they look out from the same places.
Will they also marvel at one of nature’s greatest displays? Or will they hear it simply through stories, consigned to the history books on our watch?