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Starling Survey: Not just blue skies research!

Posted by on November 24, 2014

By Amanda Hardy AMSB, Schools and Colleges Officer at the Society of Biology.

Starling in NewquayHaving lived in Kent, I am familiar with the charismatic and sociable starling. I remember seeing starlings huddled in rows on rooftops in the autumn and watching as they fly down to a garden lawn to feed. They land in small groups of six to eight birds but appear in waves, so a moment later if you are lucky there are forty to fifty birds strutting across the grass picking out morsels of food as they go; each moving in their own space quietly and systematically covering the area. But when startled the small flock fly off as one in an instant.

I find starlings to be a charming bird species and up close they have an unexpectedly attractive speckled plumage with a dark but shiny background. Their song is complex and in Newquay this summer I was lucky enough to see and hear some of the town’s starlings busking for lunch. Gathered on a fence in front of a set of benches overlooking part of the town, starlings were singing to tourists in exchange for crumbs. Younger birds were quite clearly learning and practicing their vocal repertoire from an older more experienced starling, which had a more complex vocal range incorporating sounds such as a car alarm to add to the variety. Starlings are clever mimics.

Although familiar with small flocks of starlings, I had never witnessed a murmuration until this year.  In mid-August at Ryde on the Isle of Wight I saw a small murmuration when flocks of starlings collected together over the promenade and coastal road forming a larger flock just before sunset. The combined flock consisted of maybe 200 starlings which gathered together in flight heading towards their nightly roost. The swirling patterns lasted only a few seconds and seemed to coincide with the arrival of a predator. Sadly I was not close enough to identify the bird of prey, but as it swooped towards the starling flock they separated into two separate groups and flew away. They then settled for the night with many choosing the same hotel roof and shortly afterwards falling silent.

A larger murmuration at Gretna Green in November

A larger murmuration at Gretna Green in November

Starling murmurations can be ten times this size, with over 2000 birds known to take part in swirling aerial displays, most often during the ‘starling season’ from October to March. This was a lucky taster of the spectacle and I hope to see another soon!

Little is known about why murmurations occur. You can help solve the mystery by recording where and when you see murmurations (of any size) in the Starling Survey, a partnership between the Society of Biology and the University of Gloucestershire.

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