The past week has seen much frantic action and frenzied sound to go with it. Murmurations of starlings are usually a winter phenomenon but in recent days we have been watching something of a 'mini-murmuration' here. I must admit that our jet-propelled gathering has been on a small scale compared with the vast gatherings to be seen in some parts of the country, among them in the vicinity of Gretna. During these unbelievable displays, the sky becomes one massive artist's canvas of marvellous mobile design. Here we are talking merely in dozens as opposed to tens of thousands of flock members, seen in those great murmurations!
As dusk slowly begins to creep over the landscape, this intrepid little flotilla of starlings sets off on its nightly journey around the house and the surrounding fields. As ever, the flock as it zooms by is tight knit and amazingly disciplined, always maintaining that close formation. Direction change however, is completed in a trice and without a hint of a break in the speed at which these little exercises are conducted - headlong - not even featuring so much as a momentary pause. Close observation reveals that this dashing pell-mell, to and fro, is clearly not led by a single bird or indeed as far as I can tell, even by a number of them. Instead, the flock as it suddenly turns and hurtles off in another direction, now has entirely different birds spearheading it.
I read recently that some clever boffins have, after considerable analysis, come up with the idea that such a flock is comprised of birds that are natural leaders and thus lead, whilst the bulk of each flock are natural followers and thus they therefore follow! That seems a very plausible explanation for a spectacle which wen conducted by those tens of thousands of birds, always convinces me that there must somehow be a master choreographer at work, such is the sense of awe it creates!
My little murmuration may also take the form of a training exercise. During the past few weeks, the air here has been thick with the reeling whistling and whining of starlings, calling to their youngsters. The creche for local fledglings appeared to have been located in the extensive tangle of a large hawthorn, with over-spill roosting spreading to adjacent birches and damson trees. Although starlings can from time to time, produce remarkable passages of sweet music, generally it must be said 'cribbed' from other songsters, such bursts usually come to a comical end. It is as if the perpetrator has suddenly forgotten how it goes and accordingly descends into a series of unconnected scrapes, screeches, warbles, ticks and whistles.
However, it is clear that a bevy of young starlings has fledged and decided to roost in the aforesaid hawthorns, birches and damsons. The parent birds seem to be finding rich pickings of creepy crawlies in my paddock, which they are collecting and stuffing eagerly into very receptive and wide open beaks! Hence the constant reeling - sounding not unlike the reeling in or out of countless fishing lines! I have therefore conjectured that some of the newly fledged youngsters have been taken aboard by the adult birds and given their first experiences of riding the helter skelter! One such youngster recently found its way into the house and was observed flying or fluttering, panic stricken up and down the stair-well. Our ridiculously lazy cat sat there watching it, not even bothering to inspect it each time it fell exhausted to the floor! The bird was eventually caught and returned to a more suitable outdoor environment!
However, the starlings are by no means alone in expressing themselves in such an animated way because those other avian dancing dervishes have pitched up ... on time as usual in mid-May. As the late Ted Hughes so graphically wrote, "They've made it again, Which means the globe's still working, the Creation's Still waking refreshed, our summer's Still to come - ... " Yes, there they were, swifts once more hurtling across village roof-tops. Hughes continued; "And here they are, here they are again Erupting across yard stones Shrapnel-scatter terror, Frog-gapers, Speedway goggles, international mobsters ... " Nothing, absolutely nothing, announces their return to these shores as raucously, or screams so violently, as those returning swifts.
In two local villages on successive days, I watched and indeed listened to, those newly arrived black (as opposed to red) arrows, hurtling their way in between the chimney pots. Such is the velocity of their travel that I am almost persuaded to don a hard hat! And it isn't that they have been in any way physically constrained during their winter sojourn in Africa for these birds, even now crash diving around the tiles, will not have touched down since at least a year ago. Indeed, older birds if they did not breed last year, will have probably been exclusively air-born for a minimum of two years. The only moments of sleep enjoyed by swifts are cat-naps snatched at high altitude. And of course, they feed on the wing. Hence Hughes's reference to 'frog gapers' for they literally fly with their beaks wide open in order to catch flying insects.
A hard hat may have been required too when hundreds, perhaps thousands of starlings roosted on city buildings on mainly winter nights before the authorities devised methods of discouraging them. Drawn to such roosting places by the warmth generated by the vast array of electrical appliances and by that provided to the city lights, starlings are utterly unaware of the deposits they leave behind! The pavements below are perpetually 'showered' so rather than a hard hat, an umbrella might offer more protection!
It might easily be concluded that both starlings and swifts are more regarded as urban birds than residents of the rural landscape although they are of course also seen hereabouts. I have on visits to our cities on summer days, noted large number of swifts soaring high above both Edinburgh and Glasgow. While these two birds are very different in every conceivable way, they are, nevertheless, both dependent upon insect life for a living. Swifts as said, catch their insect prey on the wing whereas starlings, with their relatively long, narrow beaks, extract them from the ground. So if midges, the scourge of tourists, therefore fall victim to swifts, the likes of wireworms and leatherjackets, persistent crop pests, are very much on the starlings' hit list! Thus, both may be regarded as useful!
If both at times produce course and raucous vocalisations, both also fly absolutely wondrously, the swift, as its name implies, with fantastic speed and vigour, the starling corporately, weaving utterly magical, mystical patterns as if guided by some single-minded artistic Deity. Both are indeed, supreme aviators and for those skills alone, deserving of our admiration.