Our darling starling

(c) Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography

Andy Dalton, Gateway Manager at Potteric Carr nature reserve, tells us why the humble starling is worthy of closer look…

Common starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are one of Yorkshire’s most familiar birds, and yet many don’t fully appreciate its dazzling qualities.

Starlings have such fantastic plumage which changes from a glossy green, black and purple sheen, bright pink legs with a bright yellow bill during summer to a stunning dark speckled white bird in winter. They live for an average of five years, but the oldest ever recorded was over twenty years old.

A singing male bird will produce a whole array of sounds, each subtly different from the next. Starlings are great mimics too, sometimes copying human-produced sounds such as alarms and even mobile phone rings.

There are almost 2 million starlings in the UK.

Though this sounds like a lot, numbers have actually declined by over 60% in the last forty years.

In fact, the decline has been so sharp starlings have now been added to the Red Data List of species of most conservation concern.

No single reason can explain this decline, but habitat and food loss are key factors. Starlings prefer to feed in open areas, with rich soil full of insects like centipedes, spiders, moths, and earthworms. It’s these areas which are being lost every day to development and urban sprawl.

(c) Steve Wilson

Starlings like to nest in cavities- naturally in trees or rock crevices, but also increasingly in roof spaces or even nest boxes.

From late winter onwards, the males will start to ‘display’ to attract a female. You’ll spot them sitting on buildings or trees, loudly singing and displaying their plumage and flapping their wings.

Starling

(c) Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography

Starling dance

Once the autumn migration comes around, our native starlings are quickly joined by a huge influx of their relatives from across the North Sea.

Escaping south away from the deep cold, some birds travel from as far away as the Ural Mountains in Russia. And it is during this mass arrival that the starlings’ famous, magical spectacle begins to be performed – the murmuration.

No one knows for certain why starlings put on such mesmerising aerial acrobatics, but avoiding predators through safety in numbers is one common theory.

These dazzling dances attract more and more birds as they progress, so another theory is that the murmuration is a way for birds to “share” news of the best local feeding areas.

Did you know?


It is called a murmuration not after the dance, but after the ethereal noise that follows. Once the birds eventually settle down to roost, they congregate very closely together and ‘murmur’ all as one.

Dazzling displays...

(c) Danny Green

Of course, describing a starling murmuration rarely does it justice – the best thing is to see it for yourself.

Potteric Carr nature reserve near Doncaster is one of the best local places to view starling murmurations; in recent years it has managed to attract several thousand starlings from around the end of October through to the end of February.

The birds start to gather around 30 minutes from sunset and can be seen performing across the reserve until they descend down into the extensive reedbeds to roost.

Share all of your best sightings with us at pottericsightings@gmail.com!

Starling

(c) Mark Robinson

Summer starlings

From October to March, starlings from the UK and further afar enliven darker evenings with their aerobatic aerial displays. But what do our resident starlings get up to during the rest of the year?

April - June:

They quickly set up a territory and the male puts on his noisy and quirky display to entice a female. The longer and more complex the song, the more successful the courtship will be! Up to three clutches of eggs can be laid during the breeding season.

July - September:

Large crèches often form, made up of young birds and adults from a neighbourhood. Adults start to moult into winter plumage and young birds quickly become independent.
 

One to spot

Aside from the common starling, there’s one another starling species you may be lucky enough to spot in Yorkshire: the rosy starling (Pastor roseus) can occasionally be spotted along the east coast, including birding hot-spot Spurn National Nature Reserve.

Normally found much further east, in some years large numbers erupt and move west into France and the UK.