I have very early memories of Starlings; my mother would chop up bacon fat and put it out on the lawn and Starlings would arrive in seconds and jostle noisily over the food. Soon, bacon and birds were gone. I remembered them in black and white (like the television of the time), which is a meagre memory of a very striking bird. My recollection is dominated by their energy and combativeness, and by stories of their talents as mimics, something the BTO looked into a few years ago. As a member of the Young Ornithologists Club, I was interested in almost anything other than Starlings, a childish oversight. I mean, dammit, I wanted to see Avocets! When I started to become interested in birds again in my early twenties, the industrial landscape of south-west Lancashire provided me with a vivid Starling experience, but not a murmuration.
A few days before I was born, Princess Alexandra opened what I came to know (not entirely accurately) as the Runcorn Bridge, our version of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It spans the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal, linking Widnes and Runcorn, and was a crucial part of our route for car journeys into North Wales. If there are any Stone Roses fans reading this, Spike Island, the site of the now legendary performance, is not too far from the crossing. Chemical country started in earnest on the east bank of the Mersey, with several major ICI plants and research facilities. To the north-east of the crossing, in Cuerdley, lies the Fiddler’s Ferry power station, a 2000MW coal-fired power station, now decommissioned and set for demolition in 2023. The station still commands the skyline but when it was operational, the plumes of steam rising from the cooling towers were visible from a very considerable distance.
Many of my journeys to and from university involved Runcorn station where southbound trains could be boarded and we’d cross the Bridge, parallel to the railway crossing, often really quite stressed about the amount of traffic and wondering if the train could be caught or not. I’m not sure when we became aware of the Starlings; it might have been early one winter morning, or perhaps it was at dusk, but it was clear that there were very many starlings roosting on the huge arch. It seemed as if every inch of the steel bore a bird. The Wikipedia entry for the Bridge doesn’t mention it, but I’m sure there was a lot of grief back in the day about Starlings defecating on cars and corroding the steel. Anyway, on evening journeys, light-permitting, we’d see the birds arriving, sometimes seeming to follow groups of birds in towards the Bridge. In the morning, small groups of birds would rise from the arch and head off to feed for the day. The size of the roost was astonishing and it makes sense (for me) of the scale of murmurations. I will do a crude calculation. The span of the Bridge was of the order of 300 m with a depth of about 10 m, so assuming an angle of arc of 180o, that’s a surface area of (150 x 10 x pi) m2 or ca. 4500 m2. I’d like to assume that a Starling needs a roosting space of a cosy 5 cm x 5 cm, or 2.5 x 10-3 m2. If the actual area of the steel is 10% of the notional band surface of the bridge (450 m2) and they are packed in fully, the Bridge could accommodate ca. 2 x 105 Starlings, which would make for a decent murmuration! I’d be happy to be within an order of magnitude of the numbers roosting on the Bridge. I looked up the UK population; the RSPB told me about population decline since the 1970s but failed to give me a number. The BTO gave me 1.8 million pairs. Maybe 2 x 105 Starlings roosting on the Bridge is not unreasonable. Brodie writing in British Birds (J. Brodie, British Birds, 1976, 69, 51–60) described some details of the behaviour of Starlings around a roost on the Forth Road Bridge, another magnificent steel structure. I stole this striking image from Brodie’s paper – I couldn’t find any details (is it a linocut?) or attribution and I’ll take it down if someone tells me off.
I’m very pleased to see Starlings these days – they seem far from commonplace. I appreciate the colours of the feathers now – they’re like a Thrush in colour negative mode.
I see them at the seaside – our usual haunts of Cardross, Irvine, Saltcoats, Stevenston and Troon. Murrays at Cardross offers them a safe perch from which to watch the foreshore; they swoop down and forage in the weed, into which they blend beautifully. My black and white from memory should really be of green and brown and iridescence. Rigging at Irvine is good perching too – who needs signal flags when you have Starlings? The blue abattoir roof at Saltcoats sets them off nicely, good colour contrast. They like the Sea Buckthorn too.
I have them watching from the Ballast Bank at Troon – there are some unpromising-looking wild swimmers out there and the Starlings are probably wondering if it’s worth sticking around in case there’s going to be some Ayrshire flesh washed up to peck at. They’re assiduous bathers themselves and they’ve learned the trick of dropping snails from a height to get to the good stuff.
I like the way they seem to adapt to and decorate the human environment. I don’t think I’d like them in my loft or ravaging my fruit crop but I’m always cheered to see them. They are exquisite on the wing – I’d love to make the following image into a fabric, not that I’d be able to do anything with it.
There are about 400 Starlings in this image of a small group on the wing over Troon. I hope to see thousands together one day, making their extraordinary figure-of-eight shapes in the sky.