DALS WILDLIFE SITE { WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND}

WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND

The Starling-Sturnus vulgaris.

Old names for the bird include Stare, Sheep stare, { solitary thrush and brown thrush refer to juvenile starlings}.

Starlings belong to the Family of birds know as the Sturnidae  {from the Latin name for the starling} and the Order Passeriformes {perching birds} Starlings that occur in Britain -the European starling is placed in the Genus Sturnus. 

Starlings  were once very familiar birds around houses. Photograph by Dal.

Starlings were once extremely common often heard quarreling with house sparrows among our towns and villages.they were often seen chattering and calling from our chimney pots and television aerials, or on lawns and other grassy places as they searched industriously for the grubs they delight to eat.

They are notorious at mimicking other bird songs and call, and, even man made sounds, such as the ring tone of a telephone is not beyond their capabilities.I have often heard local starlings imitating the bubbling call of the curlew, a bird of high fells and moorland during the summer months.

In the book British Birds {1868} it states " Its song is pleasant, and, when tamed, it can be taught to whistle tunes and even imitate the sound of the human voice, so far as to articulate words".

Starlings are seldom seen alone, with the exception of the breeding season,and are usually encountered in groups of 6-12 birds roaming in search of food.

The starling established itself as a bird of garden, village,town and city but may also be encountered in the wild at the remotest of places. Outside the breeding season these small groups of birds band together to retire to their roosts. This provides one of the most amazing sights in the natural world. Thousands of birds form the final flock which wheel and circle above the chosen roost, again and again, each wheel and turn being made with perfection and precision that one could believe they were following a precise synchronised command.

In times gone by these congregations reached enormous proportions {see conservation issues below}. During the winter months these flocks are joined by influx of continental birds. 

Description of the European Starling

The starling is a handsome bird, seen at a distance it appears to be black, however, closer observation will reveal that the crown and upper parts are generally marked with buffish brown spots, the overall plumage is of  purple and green hues and sheens on the feathers. The glossy breast is marked with pale spots on the tips of the feathers.

The bill is dull and dark during the winter, but, becomes a bright yellowish colour during the spring, it is slightly decurved. During the breeding season the sexes can be told apart by the bill, the lower mandible of the female has a pink tinge, the lower mandible of the male is blue.

The eyes are black, the female has a pale ring around its iris. 

Photograph by Dave Menke

Photograph courtesy of Dr.Thomas G Barnes

In relation to its body size the wings are medium length, the tail medium/short, bill medium length as are the legs. The flight is fast and direct with frequent glides. It walks with a shambling gait and runs.

They are 22cm long with a wingspan of 40cm, male and female each weigh 78g. they are in size somewhere between a sparrow and a thrush. There are few birds in the UK more handsomely arrayed than the male starling in his resplendent spring attire.  Young starlings are brown with a whitish throat,  and often have white chevron markings on the breast but at their first moult assume the spotted plumage.

Diet .

Starlings do a vast amount of good by ridding gardens, especially lawns, destroying an enormous number of harmful grubs, particularly the notorious leather jacket and wireworm. In a single day a flock of starlings must devour huge numbers of these pests. They are also known to feed among the tops of trees on the destructive caterpillars of the green tortrix moth. these caterpillars are capable of defoliating trees and shrubs.

However, in cherry orchards they are regarded with terror on account of the damage they can inflict on the fruit in a short period of time. Other soft fruits may also be equally damaged. 

Breeding and young

Starlings will seek out a hole in a tree to choose for a nest site, and, they are not particular whether the hole is already occupied or not, for these birds will evict a sitting tenant such as the great tit; or they will build under eaves, or other holes and crevices in houses or other buildings, again evicting any occupant, usually the house sparrow, that may have chosen the location for its own nesting activities..

The starling begins to make its nest in late March. It is an untidy builder, making a straggly nest of course material such as straw and rough grasses, strips of polythene or paper is often incorporated. The lining is made of feathers and hair. Despite their untidy nest, starlings are remarkably clean as regards the interior of their nesting abode, taking away the droppings produced by their young, usually after every visit with food for them.

There are records of starlings locating their nest on branches under the shelter of a rook or jackdaws nest. Starlings eggs are quite unlike any other British bird of their own size. They are rather long in shape, and of a lovely pale blue colour without spots or blemishes. The surface is usually glossy, however, coarse textured dull specimens are sometimes encountered.

The number of eggs is 4-6 and are usually first met with during April. Incubation takes 12-15 days and the task is undertaken by both parents. Fledging occurs at 19-22 days;Starlings may raise two broods per season. The young form loose flocks. They are capable of breeding at two years of age. The typical lifespan of the starling is thought to be five years. 

Starlings are just as likely to be encountered in the wider countryside as in towns and cities. This starling is resting in a spring shrubbery

Photograph by Dal

Conservation Issues

In the not to distant past the starling along with the house sparrow were regarded as being among the commonest birds in the UK, and even more so in the more distant past. In the book-British Land Birds {1857} it quotes a passage from the "Zoologist for 1849; the writer states:---

" On October 2nd 1844, I noticed the most amazing flock of birds that it was ever my lot to witness. They were starlings. at a distance they resembled some gigantic mass of cloud, slowly traversing the heavens, and occasionally changing its form, and breaking into smaller masses. It was evening, and the birds had, probably collected together to roost for the night, in a large wood, over the top of which they were enjoying a few moments, before retiring to nest.

The ease and elegance of their movements, as they flew to and fro; the firm and compact manner in which they kept together when moving in mass; the peculiar facility which enabled them to break the main army into numberless smaller ones, and then unite again, almost instantaneously, was perfectly astonishing, and equal to anything ever witnessed in the flight of birds".

 

            [ Birds]--

                   ---   " also use flight to express blissful well being,

                          by this as well as song, they are gifted

                          beyond all other creatures to convey to the

                          mind of man, the existence of happiness and joy"

                                                           Viscount Grey of Fallodon

In the year 2000 starlings were not considered to be a species of conservation concern, and appeared on the Green,list of conservation concern. Since then there has been a remarkable decline and in just over a decade the species has now been added to the Red List of conservation concern. { this means there has been declines of 50% or more in population numbers} , making them a Priority species of conservation concern in the UK.

Starlings are now protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 { as amended} which makes illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take a starling, or to take, damage, or destroy an active nest or its contents.

Preventing birds from gaining access to their nests may also be viewed as illegal by the courts. it is therefore, important to check for active nests before any repair to roofs and soffits are carried out during the breeding season.

The provision to control starlings under a general licence was removed from the Act in early 2005 in England, making the species fully protected in England.

The population number for starlings is estimated to be 9.5 million birds in summer.

The 2011 BTO Garden Bird Watch survey results {released in early 2012} also confirms this general decline .  

 

 

Starling flocks prior to roosting are one of the most amazing sights in nature

Photograph courtesy of John Holmes {Creative Commons Attribution}

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