Thursday, 27 February 2014

A murmuration of starlings

Helen Baczkowska, Conservation Officer

This winter, the County Wildlife Site (CWS) nearest my home has seen a roost of starlings wheeling and flowing across the sky each evening, like smoke in caught in the wind. An hour or so before sunset, small groups of starlings wing their way across the winter tree tops, the numbers slowly growing to several hundred, as more and more groups arrive from the fields and gardens where they have been feeding. Sometimes small groups break away, dart off on a circuit of their own, then return to a flock that one moment spreads out like a streamer, then clusters tightly, constantly twisting and flowing in forms that never quite resemble any nameable shape. As I watch, the birds shoot over my head chattering, with a whisper of wings like soft rain.

Starling roost, photo by Brian Macfarlane
One reason for these circling flypasts, before settling roost in the reeds of the pond, may be the local sparrow hawk. Scientists studying the phenomena of starling murmurations think that the flocking and ever-shifting shapes are largely a response to predation, as targeting one bird out of the mass becomes impossible. Certainly, the sparrow hawk has tried to fly up out of the reeds into the flock, or to fly at them from above, but always seems doomed to failure.

The science of murmurations is incomplete, but researchers have employed sophisticated video analysis and computer modelling to study how the birds achieve the spectacular moving sky patterns. To date, the thinking is that the flock is like a liquid turning to gas, or snow before an avalanche. It is a system poised to tip, with the movement of every part affecting the whole. This is a science closer to physics than biology and the evidence seems to be that each bird reacts to even the smallest movement of the birds closest to them, this movement rippling rapidly through the flock in groups of seven – each bird affecting the seven closest to them. Research continues, for the exact science of how the changes ripple through the flock without accident or confusion remains a mystery.

Flocks of thousands of starlings are known from large reed beds around Britain, with notable winter roosts on the East Anglian coast. Many of the birds will be winter migrants, boosting the numbers of a species that has suffered a dramatic decline in recent decades; long-term monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) shows that starling numbers have fallen by 66 per cent in Britain since the mid-1970s. The roost on the CWS is tiny compared to some, but it demonstrates the value of even small areas of habitat and is a reminder that observing the natural world is vital in informing the management of sites. It would be easy to look at the reed-covered pond as overgrown, but it is the only local pond suitable for a starling roost. If clearance of the ponds is considered in the future, retaining some of the reed will mean there is always a winter roost for the starlings.

Starling in flight, photo by Elizabeth Dack
As evening grows darker, the starlings circle ever closer to the reeds, swooping down close, then rising again, until at last, as if on some unseen signal, they pour into their roost in a single black flow, like dark liquid through a funnel. At first, they are easily unsettled, fluttering and chattering amongst themselves, rising uneasily if I walk too close. In the morning they fill my garden hedge with the fizz and buzz of their song, reminding me that spring is around the corner and that the flock will soon disperse - at least until next winter.


2 comments:

  1. Where in Norfolk can the starling display be seen please.

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    1. You can see starling murmurations in autumn and winter. When they flock can vary, sometimes it is as early as October, other times not until November time. The best places to go in Norfolk are actually the RSPB reserves Strumpshaw Fen and Titchwell Marsh. You can find out more about their reserves at http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/a/ . Contact details for Strumpshaw can be found at http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/s/strumpshawfen/about.aspx. Another place that they can be seen is Bawsey Pits in King's Lynn http://www.finestofnorfolk.co.uk/#/bawsey-country-park/4576562959

      About starling murmurations why do they do it? http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/birdguide/name/s/starling/roosting.aspx

      It is worth contacting the wardens on the sites if you are planning a visit, they know exactly what is happening on their reserves.

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