Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.
Image by Marilyn Peddle, CC BY-NC 2.0
Latin name: Sturnus vulgaris
Adults in the breeding season look basically black, but with a shining purple and green feathering, the starling is truly a very handsome bird. It is indeed very attractive and so underrated by both birdwatchers and the general public.
The starling, like all birds, has two basic needs – places to nest and places to feed – and modern man has provided plenty of both.
Before we came on the scene, starlings nested in holes in trees and on cliffs, as they still do. But now they have taken to nesting on a wide range of manmade structures, so much so that they have been considered a nuisance in many towns and cities across the UK.
They are prolific breeding birds, with some males mating with up to five females. Young birds have mousy grey-brown plumage and are often mistaken for a separate species by the general public. This is no surprise, as in a survey of 2000 adults, over half could not identify a house sparrow and one in four thought a penne was a bird rather than a pasta!
The young moult into adult plumage during late autumn, after which they associate with the adults, forming large winter roosts (more of this later). Looking again at recent statistics, the results of this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch put the starling in third place, with no collared dove, crow or dunnock in the ten most recorded birds. In 2020, the much quoted BTO tells us that the starling was Britain’s 14th most common breeding bird, with 1.75 million pairs, the same as the chiff-chaff but fewer than the willow warbler. All this suggests to me that garden birdwatchers cannot identify small brown birds like wrens and dunnocks!
This is a species in decline as a breeding bird. In 1976, the BTO told us that our UK population was between 4 and 7 million pairs, whilst some 150 years ago it was a rather rare bird. Could it be so once again as more and more birds are missing from our skies?
We have only one species of starling breeding in the UK. It is found everywhere, except in the mountainous regions of northwest Scotland. A sub-species occurs in Shetland and Orkney. Our bird breeds across western Europe, north into sub-Arctic Scandinavia, the Faroes and eastern Iceland.
Many of you will have encountered the very similar spotless starling on your Spanish holidays or perhaps the spectacular rose coloured starling in eastern Europe, which has occurred as a rare vagrant to the UK. This is a worldwide family of some 80 species, which can be found in every continent except Antarctica.
I have traced at least ten extinctions, the most recent being the Lord Howe starling in c1925. These extinctions have mainly happened on small, isolated island groups. I would like to know more about the strangely named mysterious starling, last recorded in 1780! The main cause of extinction, of course, was man and his domestic birds and animals. No surprises there!
Returning to the question of starling roosts or “murmurations”, which regularly hit the TV headlines during the coming months, many readers may not realise that we used to have a big roost on the reserve from late October in most years, certainly up to the winter of 2006/7. From the Visitor Centre window, looking south over the meadow, many thousands of starlings could be observed coming in to roost – or was it a pre-roost?
This is now in the past, but huge starling roosts can still be enjoyed in many parts of Britain each winter. The largest recently have occurred in the Somerset Levels at the RSPB reserve at Ham Wall, where between one and two million starlings have been estimated. This spectacle has provided much needed customers for local guesthouses and hotels etc during the winter months. It is considered that most, if not all, of these birds come to us each winter from central Europe.
Finally, I do understand that not all garden bird lovers like starlings. Try listening to them as they mimic so many different birds, from curlews to gulls and golden plovers, perhaps reflecting the sounds they hear on their breeding grounds.