Monday, 19 May 2014

Stars in the Garden

It was just a normal spring day in the garden, a small patch of paving surrounded by the developing green of a veggie plot, the blossoms of an apple, pear and ornamental cherry tree and the general bric-a-brac of a busy garden, bins for storage, pots, compost, wheelbarrow…

The sky above is a patchwork of cloud and sun, while a breeze ripples through the leaves of surrounding trees. All around are the sounds of birds, from the general twittering of sparrows, the song of a robin or dunnock, to the recent addition of swifts screaming overhead. But today a trill that sounds like a hoarse buzz carries above them all. The source? Recently fledged starlings begging to their parents for food.

A stunning adult female starling

Sensing an opportunity a small walk in trap is set and baited with suet pellets, a delicious and fat rich source of food for young and adult starlings alike. Retreating it does not take long for the starlings to cotton on, and before long there are not one but three birds hopping around the trap. The adults are beautiful with dark feathers which shimmer iridescent green and purple, with some yellowish spots on the back and under the wings. The males in particular are stunning, but the females too, even after raising a hungry brood, have glossy feathers. The bright yellow bill, that in winter will become dark, has a pale bluish grey base in the males and a paler yellow base in females. In contrast to their sleek and glossy parents the young are a dull brown, not until later will their moult begin and the dark, spotty plumage of winter begin to appear.

Adult male starling (blue base to bill)

Young starling

As the morning progresses there is a steady stream of birds caught in the trap. Most are adults, with the young watching and screeching their encouragement from the sidelines of the garden fence. While this noisy, gregarious and social bird may not be everyone’s favourite visitor their gift for mimicry has attracted the attention of literacy greats like Shakespere and their winter flocks are one of the most incredible wildlife spectacles in the UK. In many countries, like the USA, where they have been released starlings tend to be the bad guys, causing conflict with humans and native species. Sadly in the UK the breeding population has declined by over 80% in the last 25 years. Priorities for this species now lie in understanding more about their movements and winter roosts, to monitor their breeding and build solutions for their conservation into the development of green spaces and agriculture schemes. For urban populations more work is needed to understand the reasons and therefore possible solutions to their decline. 

So when you see a noisy gang of glossy, chattering, starlings descend on your garden, gobble up all your food in one go, don't be so harsh and quick to curse. Be thankful that here, where they are a native part of our landscape, such cheeky, beautiful birds still visit your garden. 

video

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