In buildings, on buildings, in every conceivable nook and cranny, in bushes, in shrubs, in trees, in hedges, and just about everywhere you look there is a tide of productivity sweeping across the landscape. Wherever it is possible to build or scrape a nest, birds have taken every opportunity to find for themselves little niches where they can lay their eggs, incubate them and eventually hatch their broods of youngsters. Thus, these are miraculous days.
Many of the usual culprits are evident, a plethora of different songs filling the air but most notable, perhaps, are three familiar denizens of our gardens and yards. Inevitably, chief among them are the speugs. It is said that our house sparrow population is in truly serious decline with numbers across the globe apparently disappearing like snow off a dyke. Yet no bird throughout history has had such a close relationship with man. Since time immemorial, wherever even small groups of people have settled, house sparrows have always been there too. It may be assumed that the said sparrows are the beneficiaries of this arrangement, always more than happy to exploit the wastefulness of our species.
Quite naturally, we associate these ubiquitous birds with large concentrations of human populations. In other words, we expect them to dominate our urban conurbations. But now it seems, for a variety of reasons, one of which may be a different approach to the construction of human dwellings, it is in these previous hotspots that the decline in most marked.
There do seem to be exceptions to the rule. For instance, twenty years ago in this airt - dominated by farming activities - the house sparrow population was minimal but the situation during the past two decades has changed markedly and their numbers during that time have multiplied astonishingly. Believe me, here there is no sign of decline whatsoever.
Much more exotic and indeed considerably more flamboyant in every aspect of their daily lifestyle, are the swallows. Their presence in our buildings here each summer, certainly adds another dimension to bird-watching as they zoom in and out of the buildings In pursuit of the myriads of tiny flying insect that are their stock in trade. This year we’ve opened an extra building up for them and there is plenty of activity to ensure that the days are not boring!
If there is always that wild element present in just about everything swallows do - a careless unbridled sense of energy - it is a sobering thought that the vast majority of them rely very heavily upon people being around … or at least, they have come to a point where they are almost totally reliant upon the structures erected down the years by successive generations for the establishment of their own nesting sites. Early generations of swallows, we are told, nested either in caves or beneath cliff overhangs.
The third noticeable nester has been unusual in that, as far as I am aware, this bird has not been one of the regular nesting communities here. This year’s interloper is a starling. “So what?” Nothing exotic about that! What was perhaps surprising was that the identification of this ‘new’ nesting bird came vocally. Starlings, above all, are famous for the extremely mixed vocal messages that characterises the quite remarkable range of noises they make.
Starlings, famously prattle! You may find starlings, or sometimes a single bird, typically perched on an overhead line, sitting, all huddled up prattling away – no structure, no tune, indeed, no apparent purpose. It is clearly a vocalisation that is not designed to attract a mate, or warn a rival. It just seems to be a rambling conversation which has no purpose. Alternatively, starlings are famous for their mimicry. Out of nowhere will suddenly emerge a snatch of real, sweet music, worthy of a songster such as a blackbird.
However, starlings do not limit their mimicry exclusively to the sounds made by other birds, albeit that some seem to have perfected the calls of owls and hawks, presumably to cause their own version of mayhem. Even more annoying is the mimicry of car alarms and especially of telephones which as might be imagined, can cause much consternation …. answering a ringing phone, which, in the end, isn’t ringing at all! Some take it further by mimicking cats and crying babies. More mayhem!
I guess the size of vocal repertoire in many birds enhances their chances of winning a mate and in starling-speak, the addition of telephones, car alarms et al may well add to a reputation. However, there is one aspect of starling music I regard as pure starling and that is the reeling, almost greenfinch roll of notes. That more than any other of the many sounds starlings make, is, in my view, proper starling music!
But this is just typical of the enigma that is the starling. The entire lifestyle of starlings seems to me to be an incredible mix of lifestyles. This nesting pair is clearly just a single pair. Yet often starlings will nest in small groups, quietly taking over for instance, stretches of hedgerow. Suburban dwellers will be familiar with little groups of starlings descending on bird-tables, bullying all other visiting birds and commandeering the food – the bully boys of the bird-table.
And yet, starlings can live in a totally different dimension. Most of us are familiar with the spectacular ‘murmurations’ of starlings which, in various parts of the country, provide the most sensational aerial displays. These quite remarkable aerial displays, usually occurring in the evenings, are now regularly shown on television. In winter time I enjoy ‘mini murmurations’ in my garden, as prior to roosting the local flock of starlings dash hither and thither in a most spectacular series of fly pasts.
Meanwhile, such manoeuvres are not the priority. The priority just now is the nurturing and rearing of the next generation. The sparrows, the swallows and the one and only pair of starlings, have a job in hand and all other facets of their vastly varying lifestyles are for the moment, very much on the back burner.