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The starling

David Chapman / 13 December 2011 ( 28 September 2017 )

Find out about the characterful starling and where to see the best murmurations.

Starling in summer plumage
Starlings lose their white spots gradually through the winter, this bird was photographed in early summer. All photographs © David Chapman

A cheeky garden visitor; a bold bird taking rubbish from dustbins at holiday resorts and motorway service stations; a bird forming huge murmurating flocks at dusk; a superb mimic of bird calls as well as telephones, car alarms and whistles; a pest of orchards picking cherries and apples: the starling means something different to all of us but one thing is for sure, it is a bird full of character and interest.

I remember seeing my first glossy, iridescent, colourful starling in my grandmother’s garden in the 1970s when I wasn’t even a teenager. I couldn’t wait to get back inside the house to identify this wonderful bird and add it to my garden list.

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Declining numbers

Ever since that day I have been a huge admirer of starlings and have always been impressed by the way in which they adapt to the presence of humans. They nest in our houses, sing from our aerials, take scraps from our gardens and often roost in our town centres. Despite this apparent tolerance and contrary to the opinions of many people they are not faring well having lost over 80% of their population since I saw my first individual, this puts them “on the critical list of UK birds most at risk" according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Around 60% of their diet comes from invertebrates found in grassy pastures and it might be that their decline is due to a corresponding decline in this prey. The loss of permanent pasture, possibly in other parts of Europe, as well as the use of chemicals in farming are believed to be having a huge impact on the starling population.

Starling in winter
An adult starling in winter has white spots and an iridescent plumage.

Attracting starlings into the garden

We can help starlings in our gardens through the winter by providing food. They have a wide ranging diet and will take seed and peanuts from feeders but they prefer suet balls, mealworms and apples. They are acrobats so don’t mind dangling from feeders if they must but they are more at home on the ground or a low-height bird table.

In Britain we are always more likely to see starlings in winter than spring but they might be encouraged to stay and nest if you can provide suitable holes under the eaves of your house, in outhouses or trees. If this isn’t possible then try making some nest boxes for them.

Visit our Home and Garden section for gardening guides, home improvement tips and much more.

The meaning of ‘starling’

Starlings like to live alongside people and have a long association with us, particularly around farms. When starlings alight on the backs of sheep they are taking ticks and other parasites from the sheep’s skin. This behaviour has led to many localised names for the starling including ‘sheep stare’. 

The name ‘stare’ and ultimately ‘starling’ may have derived from the greek word ‘psaros’ meaning flecked or it may have the same derivation as the word ‘star’. Either way it is most likely that the name is due to the white speckled plumage of the birds.

Juvenile starling
A young starling in late summer moults from juvenile to adult plumage.

Juvenile starlings

During summer we see a large number of young starlings which lack the stunning plumage of the adults. They are grey-brown all over and look quite comical as they begin a bottom-up moult of their juvenile plumage during late summer. Their brown heads combine comically with black and white bodies leading to many mis-identifications. Their habit of probing flowers for nectar and covering their faces in orange pollen adds to the confusion!

At the same time of year the adults also undergo a moult, they need to acquire fresh plumage to keep them warm during the winter. After moulting starlings attain their fine white spots, in the shape of arrowheads, on the tips of their feathers but during the winter the tips of the feathers wear away leaving the bird largely black but with a characteristic iridescent sheen. The iridescence in the feathers varies from purple to green depending upon the angle of light.

Starling murmuration in Blackpool
Starlings form large roosts in winter, this one is at North Pier, Blackpool.

Migration and murmurations

During autumn the number of starlings in Britain is boosted by immigrants from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe seeking mild conditions. From late October through the winter each evening just before dusk starlings gather at roost sites, they will fly up to about 20 miles to get to a roost. Their roost sites can occur in woods, urban areas or reedbeds. Sometimes many thousands, or even millions, 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, a phenomenon known as a murmuration. To avoid mid-air collisions individual birds must watch the changes in direction of others at least two ahead of them making instantaneous decisions and following their lead almost to the wing beat.

It is thought by scientists that these wheeling masses of birds are intended to deter predators by confusing them but I have my own theory about why the flock twists and turn so much. I reckon each bird needs to go to the toilet before going to bed and in order to do this it must get to the bottom of the flock. So they each take it in turns to pay a visit. The scientists haven't thought of this particular explanation just yet but it's only a matter of time. Anyway, should you find yourself underneath a flock of a million starlings I would advise you not to look up!

Where to see stunning murmurations

Good starling roosts have been noted at:

  • Marazion Marsh, Cornwall
  • Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall, Somerset
  • Picadilly Square, Manchester
  • Brighton Pier
  • Aberystwyth Pier
  • Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, north Lancashire
  • North Pier, Blackpool
  • Tarn Sike, Orton in East Cumbria
  • 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.

Find out about the best places to see wild birds in the UK

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.