When I was but a lad, I used to lie on my back in a field gazing ever skywards to watch the hovering kestrels and the towering buoyant flight of skylarks, which were singing as if their lungs were about to burst. Skylarks and countryside are, or perhaps were, endemic and you seldom had the one without the other. In more recent years I used to watch them from my garden, watch as they climbed up into the sky and all seemed well then – I had my larks, I had my wonderful hovering kestrels. Now the skies hereabouts are empty and for the past few years, they have been sadly bereft of the quite magnificent song of the skylark.
In recent years, the decline in farmland birds has been alarming. I no longer hear the ‘little bit of bread but no cheese’ ditty of the yellowhammer. Once upon a time, wherever I went during the summer months, that cheerful little song would ring out from every hedgerow. Now there is that all pervading silence. I used to be regularly visited by tree sparrows, now I never see one. What are we doing to our countryside? Since the 1970s, nearly seventy per cent of starlings, those ever-present raiders of my bird table, have disappeared.
I was shocked to learn these birds are on the red alert list and in such rapid decline that their future is threatened. Starlings, I ask you! When, as a young boy I first became interested in birds, the starlings were viewed rather like a plague. At times, they dominated our bird-table, bullying other birds and always, it seemed, grabbing the best of the food we provided. Since those youthful days, I have gained a tad more respect for these vagabonds. Indeed, I have thought for a while that starlings are the ‘colley’ birds of the carol, ‘a partridge in a pear tree’.
Some claim that ‘colley’ (black) birds, not ‘calling birds’ as most sing, are blackbirds but reading an extract from a new book, “Red Sixty Seven”, I am now further convinced that colley birds are starlings. In that book, the first edition of which has already sold out and with a reprint now on the way, the author, Rob Cowen, speaks of the starlings as once being as common as coal. He compares the iridescent purples, greens and blues on a black background of their feathers as the rare hues of petrol on water – all colours that you get from a coal fire - and he also refers to their smoke-like swirling in the skies. Surely then these are the real colley birds.
Starlings are full of character - Chaplinesque at times - as they strut here and there, often causing chaos and prone at times to bullying other birds at bird-tables. But at times, there can be a distinctly comedic aspect to their behavior, albeit that various town and city councils don’t appear to see their funny side. Rather do they wage war on them with some authorities having spent considerable amounts of money in trying to deter them from roosting en-masse on town and city buildings.
Starlings are well known for gathering together in large numbers in the evening in massive roosts which sometimes number more than a million birds. This strategy has caused much puzzlement for although they get together in this way, they do not huddle as a means of generating corporate heat. In fact, many other birds practice this togetherness as a means of deterring potential predators. I suppose the self-preservation theory is that if you are one of a million or so birds you have a statistically better chance of not becoming a victim!
The famous ‘mumurations’ when thousands, sometimes millions of starlings come together to paint the sky black with their incredible patterns – like smoke drifting across a sky brushed this way and that by the wind – are a truly amazing phenomenon, a movement which, in my view, might justify inclusion among the wonders of the world. These displays terminate eventually when the mass of birds decides it is time to settle down for the night at which point, they all dive into a roost. It is then that starlings begin their evening prayers – not so much supplication as exchanges of information as to where the best and most productive feeding places are and so on and so forth. Starlings may not speak in the way that we humans do but somehow, they do manage to share this vital information.
As said before, starling numbers have been flagging over the years and no-one can pinpoint the reason. A near seventy per cent reduction in overall numbers since the mid seventies is, by any calculation, a severe drop in population and accordingly starlings are now endangered birds. One explanation put forward is that a succession of dry summers has made the soil that they explore for invertebrates, less yielding and more difficult to penetrate but this does not apply universally. Nor would I expect this to have a profound effect upon a bird which is particularly well equipped to seek food by prodding its long, pointed beak deep into the soil.
Among the strange facts of starling life is a cuckoo-like inclination to lay eggs in other starling’s nests. Maybe they’ve watched the cuckoos and thought ‘that’s a good idea!’. I certainly have a clear memory of a parent starling hurtling towards its own nest full of chicks with a beak full of wriggling insects, being lured by the highly coloured interior of the yawning gape of a young cuckoo and thus instinctively going to the cuckoo and discharging its cargo into that open mouth. But copying cuckoos and depositing eggs in other nests may just be a way of ensuring that the species prevails.
Wildlife provides us with plenty of warnings as to the damage we may be causing to the environment. The demise of so many starlings in recent years, the absence of yellowhammers and tree sparrows, not to mention the aforesaid kestrels and skylarks, are clear warnings that all is not well. Therefore, the sooner we can work out just why our starlings are in such disarray and just why our yellowhammers and other birds are also in such decline, we should not rest easy.
Although starlings are pretty omnivorous, the fear that insects, their principle source of food, are also in such decline may well be a clue. Reports from all over western Europe indication that insect populations are at seriously low levels also tells us that insect eating birds are bound to suffer as a result. And the fact that we are too easily persuaded that all weeds are bad and need eliminating, ignores the fact that many birds, including the yellowhammer, depend on the seeds of many weeds for their survival. This should surely evoke a response from us.
Perhaps we are too hasty to point the finger and eliminate things like insects and weeds and forget that they are all part of the very fabric of life. And where, oh where, are my gorgeous hovering kestrels? That perhaps is another story!