Winter’s Dance of Starlings

by Rich Howorth Wildlife Urban Birds Spotlight on Nature

One of the most charismatic local birds in The Living Coast is the Starling, best-known for the large aggregations of individuals – “murmurations” – that come together in the winter months.

Starling (c) RSPB

Murmurations of starlings paint beautifully intricate and dynamic patterns in the sky, a mass aerial stunt of thousands of birds all swooping and diving in unison. Grouping together offers them safety in numbers from aerial predators such as peregrine falcons. See the ‘Starlings In The UK’ website for information about Starling Murmurations at roost sites across the country.

Starlings are active in each of The Living Coast’s three environments, and so tell a story of how they are inter-connected: feeding in grassland of the countryside and urban green spaces in towns by day, and returning in late afternoon to perform their impressive murmurations over their densely populated roost sites – notably manmade structures along the coast including Brighton’s Piers and the Marina being notable locations.

They gather together at such roosts to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as about good feeding areas. Recent significant counts at Brighton Pier have included 37,000 birds on 29th January 2008 and a very impressive 50,000 on 27 Feb 2010! Numbers vary considerably at this roost site probably due to varying winter weather conditions.

How many starlings do you think are in this photo?
(see below for the answer)

Starling murmuration by Brighton Palace Pier

Almost 40,000 Starlings have been ‘ringed’ in Sussex, showing that many of those are migrant birds arriving for the winter from Eastern Europe around the Baltic. Ringing can also provide valuable data on longevity and a Starling ringed in Sussex in 1984 was found dead in 2010, some 25 years later (an exceptional age!) and close to where it had first been recorded.

Despite the Starling still being a relatively common local bird, its numbers have declined significantly in Britain, by two-thirds since the mid-1970s, hence it is “red-listed” as a bird of high conservation concern. There are only limited signs that the local population declines are beginning to ease, so we may see yet more population decline and range contraction in the Sussex breeding population in the short-term, and yet fewer birds arriving from Europe in the winter.

Starlings are an iconic local bird that we need to value and look after if they are to thrive in the future. They are also a wonderfully fascinating bird to observe, that speaks in many voices and gathers in large numbers. Hence they were chosen as the name for the RSPB’s LGBTQI+ group, as were proudly on parade at Brighton Pride this year!

Love Your Nature

Adrian Thomas
RSPB – South East office, Brighton

Note – text adapted from “The Birds of Sussex" book published by the Sussex Ornithological Society (2014, out of print) – the definitive source of information on Sussex's birds.

Answer: just under 7000 starlings are in the photo.
Research has shown that most people underestimate the numbers of birds in large flocks – were you one of them?

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  • Rich:

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    13 Dec 2018 13:55:46

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