By Charlotte Owen
It’s difficult to pick a favourite species but the starling will always be on my shortlist. The name itself is surely one of the best out there: something magical, mysterious and out of this world. Their spectacular star-studded winter plumage develops a glossy sheen of sumptuous purple and green iridescence for the breeding season, glistening with galactic colour. Yet this cosmic creature is within easy reach, setting up home in our towns and gardens to add its distinctive song to the soundtrack of everyday life.
Nothing sounds quite like a starling. Perched up high on a rooftop aerial, the male lets rip ‘a weird array of ecstatic noises.’ His chattering rattles, clicks, whistles and warbles have a creaky, wheezing overtone as if half bird, half machine. Not content with his own percussive sound, the starling can also mimic other birds with uncanny accuracy – as well as bleating sheep, ringtones and reversing trucks. They can be taught to speak too and were once known as the poor man’s parrot, with pet starlings in ancient Rome apparently capable of reciting fluent Latin and Greek.
But the real magic happens when starlings flock together. A murmuration is one of the natural world’s most impressive spectacles, a shape-shifting swarm of thousands of birds swooping and soaring in perfect unison as they prepare to roost for the night. Brighton is still one of the best places in the country to experience a murmuration but even these breath-taking displays pale in comparison to those of the past century. In 1949, time stood still when starlings settled on the hands of Big Ben in such great numbers that they stopped the clock. Elsewhere, the smell of accumulated overnight droppings at a rural roost site was strong enough to allow a fox to escape when the hounds got lost in the ‘miasmic stink’ – but surely that’s just one more point in the starling’s favour.
Since then, our constellation of starlings has dimmed to a faint glow of its former self. The ultimate cause of their decline remains a mystery but ongoing conservation efforts are striving to ensure that the starling’s light will not wink out.