Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Irish Garden Birds - Magnificent, Murmurating Starlings

It's a new year, but the Irish Garden Bird Survey continues! Hopefully some of you got some bird-related goodies for christmas, and are looking forward to seeing what the new year brings to your garden! If you're in the habit of making new year's resolutions, make one to go and see a Starling murmuration - there are few sights more spectacular than seeing tens of thousands of Starlings seemingly dance across a winter skyline. These murmurations happen all across the country through the winter months, so there's definitely one near you! 


Species Profile: Starling

As Gaeilge: ‘Druid’

Irish Garden Bird Survey Ranking 2016/17: 12th place

Conservation status: Amber-listed in Ireland but currently of 'least concern' at European level.

European Starling. Photo by B. Burke

Did You know?
  1. In much of it's native range in Europe the Starling is declining, mainly down to less farmland and grassland invertebrates being available to feed growing chicks.
  2. The Starling features in a W.B. Yeats poem - "The Stare's Nest by My Window". 'Stare" or "staer" were old english names for the Starling. 
  3. The bill of the Starling changes colour depending on the season - it's yellow during the breeding season and black during winter. 
  4. Their repertoire of songs and noises can be hugely varied, and they can mimic songs of other bird species, and even humans! 
  5. European Starlings were introduced to North America by a man who wanted America to have all of the birds and animals mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. He and his friends released 100 Starlings in Central Park in New York around 130 years ago. There's now estimated to be around 200 million European Starlings in North America!

Starling Murmurations

Starling gather in winter flocks known as "murmurations" - which can number in the tens of thousands, and perform amazing aerial acrobatics before going to roost at dusk. These large flocks provide safety in numbers for the birds, as well as an opportunity to exchange information on feeding areas, and provide warmth in cold winter nights.

Starling Murmuration in Winter 2017. Photo via Birdwatch Ireland West Cork Branch Facebook Page
In a murmuration, each Starling is basing its movements on the few birds immediately surrounding it, so if one bird changes speed or direction, the birds surrounding it follow suit and very quickly all of the flock is doing the same. 

Starling murmurations happen across Ireland every year, often over a reedbed or forestry roost site. Lough Ennel in Westmeath is a famously reliable site to see a murmuration , as is Albert bridge in Belfast. Our West Cork Branch have been posting regular updates on a fantastic murmuration this winter, so be sure to check out their facebook page here for more details. 
    A Starling Murmuration in Co. Wexford in 2011. Photo by Edward W. Delaney

    How long do they live?

    The typical lifespan for a Starling is around 5 years, which is longer than most of the smaller garden birds. The oldest bird known in Ireland and Britain reached 17 years and 7 months old - ringed as a first-year female in Ipswich in 1983, and found dead in 2001 in Russia! 

    For more details on the ages and journeys of ringed Starlings, see the BTO website here.

    Juvenile Starlings with orange heads - a result of feeding on the New Zealand Flax plant. Photo by B. Fitzpatrick

    What do they feed on? 

    Starlings prefer to eat insects and other invertebrates - you'll often see them patrolling your lawn in search of beetles, millipedes, snails, weevils or other invertebrate larvae (e.g. leatherjackets) to eat - so in that respect they're another bird that's very much a gardeners friend. They prefer open areas so you're unlikely to see them inspecting branches for caterpillars like a Blue Tit, or searching beneath a hedge like a Dunnock.

    Starlings eating peanuts from a feeder. Photo by Terry Flanagan.

    When it comes to feeding them in your garden, they aren't that fussy and will happily go for fat balls, suet pellets, mealworms, fruit, peanuts or seed that's been scattered on the ground. 

    As always, we have a variety of bird foods and feeders available in our shop to help you look after the Starlings and the other birds in your garden - see here for more.

    Irish Garden Bird Survey Trends:

    Since the new format of the Irish Garden Bird Survey began in 1994/95, Starlings have pretty consistently ranked somewhere between 10th and 15th place - which means they're present in 70-80% of gardens each year. Their best year to date was in 2010/11 when they reached 7th place - one of only two occasions they've broken into the top 10.

    Their numbers tend to show a slight increase as the winter goes on (see graph below).

    The graph above shows average numbers of Robins, Blue Tits and Starlings recorded per garden in the Irish Garden Bird Survey since 1994/95. Starlings appear in larger numbers as they're a flocking species, whereas Blue Tits usually hang around in pairs, whereas Robins are solitary and territorial during the winter. In general, each of the species is present in most gardens and they're numbers vary only slightly over the course of the survey period.

    Starlings along a pier wall. Photo by S. Connolly

    Movements and Migration:

    In winter our Starling numbers increase hugely, as birds that breed in Europe come here to escape the harsh cold. From ringing studies, we know Starlings from countries such as Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Russia, amongst others will come to Ireland and the UK to spend the winter. These winter migrants join up with our Irish-breeding birds to allow for the spectacular murmurations we're treated to across the country from late autumn to early spring. Some of those murmurations involve tens of thousands of Starlings, and could potentially involve birds from a huge list of countries

    Locations where Irish and UK Starlings have also been recorded - see this link for more info: https://blx1.bto.org/ring/countyrec/resultsall/rec15820all.htm 

    How can I help Starlings?

    Starling numbers are actually in decline in Ireland and Europe, and one of the best ways you can help them is to provide them with a suitable nest site. A nestbox with a hole around 45mm in diameter is the best for Starlings, and put it on a mature tree or under the eaves of your house or shed. It's well worth putting up a few if you can as Starlings love to have neighbours nearby.

    Click this link here for all of the details you need to build and/or put up a Starling nestbox, via the BTO.

    Starlings are somewhat notorious for nesting in the eaves of houses, often stripping away lining to get in. This often causes mixed feelings, with people delighted to have nesting birds on the one hand, but somewhat concerned at the noise that can result. The best solution to this is to block up the entrance where the Starlings have nested in previous years, and supply them with a nestbox instead - everyone wins! This is the best time of year to get this work done, well in advance of the nesting season! 

    As always, if you want to help us conserve and protect Irish Birds, then there's no better way than by becoming a member of BirdWatch Ireland.

    Membership also makes a great gift for birthdays, fathers day, mothers day etc, and if you get our family membership you'll receive our Bird Detectives kids activity magazine twice a year too.

    All members receive our 'Wings' Membership magazine four times per year - this picture to the right shows our November 2014 issue which features a stunning Starling murmuration on the cover! 

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