The starling

David Chapman / 13 December 2011

I think the starling is one of our most under-estimated and even maligned garden birds

It can be cheeky, it can be over-confident, it can even gang up with its mates to chase other birds away but the starling is a colourful character and is welcome in my garden at any time.

The only time I think a starling looks drab is in late summer when juveniles moult into adult plumage. A scruffier sight it is hard to imagine, but once they have achieved a full moult they look resplendent with the white stars set against a dark iridescent background of feathers. Catch the light properly and you will see a rainbow of colours in their attire, easily a match for any British bird when it comes to beauty.

The starling is a colourful character in many ways, I love to sit a listen to its repertoire of calls. It is a mimic of other birds’ calls as well as copying the sounds of telephones, car alarms and whistles. Listen out for starlings singing when the sun is out and the wind is still, then they take to aerials and roof tops to compete with each other across lanes and streets to see which can come up with the biggest repertoire of calls.

Despite starlings remaining quite numerous their population has decreased significantly, by about 66% since the 1970s, and it is still not clear why. The number of starlings in Britain is boosted in autumn every year when immigrants arrive from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe seeking the milder conditions. This is when we usually start to see more at feeders in our gardens. These birds often gather together to roost at night for safety and huge flocks can be seen gathering at traditional sites.

Often hundreds of thousands of birds form huge flocks in the sky. These clouds of birds twist and turn in a ripple effect, as if acting as one entity. To avoid mid-air collisions, individual birds must watch the changes in direction of others ahead of them making instantaneous decisions and following their lead almost to the wing beat. The wheeling mass is intended to deter predators by confusing them.

Some of their roost sites have been used for centuries; they occur in reed beds, town centres and woodlands, but there are occasions when even the most popular places can be deserted for months at a time.

Good starling roosts have been noted at: Marazion Marsh, Cornwall; Shapwick Heath, Somerset; Picadilly Square, Manchester; Brighton Pier; Aberystwyth Pier; Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, north Lancashire; North Pier, Blackpool; Leicester Square, London; Stromness, Orkney; Slapton Ley, Devon; Forth Road Bridge, Edinburgh. There are many other good spots, probably the best way to find them is to search on the internet or contact your local RSPB group or Wildlife Trust.

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