Such is the strength of association between the Starling and humans that they are pretty much unmistakeable. While their size is close to that of a Blackbird, the overall appearance is of a more rakish, bustling, social bird, often noisy and flighty. At distance, the adults appear black, but on closer viewing the iridescent nature of the plumage becomes evident. It is possible to tell the sex of two adults, but only during the breeding season. Males have glossier plumage and a blueish blush at the base of their bills whilst females have a pinkish blush (!) at the base of their bills. Both have a yellow bill. Young Starlings are dull brown in colour, often with a pale throat and can easily be confused with Blackbirds.
I was prompted to write this piece after watching our local birds fighting over the suet balls, and then going out onto the lawn to probe for larvae: they spend the summer months feeding mostly on soil-dwelling invertebrates, such as leatherjackets (the larvae of crane flies), plus my suet balls – by the kilo. From late summer their diet will change and they will eat increasing quantities of plant material.
With the first eggs laid in April around here, our resident Starlings begin looking for nesting cavities early in the year. The loss of suitable cavities is thought to be yet another factor in their decline. Cavities under roof tiles or within barge boards and soffits are now less common than they once were, reducing opportunities for the urban component of our Starling breeding population.
By the time you read this, the earlier broods will have developed a brighter plumage, but the later ones will still be around and kicking up a fuss, demanding to be fed NOW. A pair will typically raise two broods per year, and within two months most juveniles will have moulted and gained their first basic plumage. They will acquire their adult plumage next year.
Starlings show a certain amount of adaptability when it comes to food. In addition to probing the ground for invertebrates, they will also flycatch or actively pursue insects across the ground. Large food scraps are taken regularly, and they have even been known to tackle small lizards, newts and frogs. This resourceful nature is one reason why the Starling has adapted so well to living alongside us within our urbanised landscapes.
As those of us who remember vast flocks of Starlings will be aware, they are not doing very well at the moment, despite their sometimes still being seen in fair sized flocks. Breeding numbers in the UK fell rapidly during the early 80s particularly in the south and west of Britain, and their UK conservation listing was changed from amber to red as the decline became more severe. Their breeding performance has gradually improved, suggesting that their continued low numbers may be due to poor survival rates of young birds.
Wintering Starlings roost communally and vast flocks may congregate at favoured sites, typically performing amazing aerobatic displays (known as ‘murmurations’) before dropping into the roost, which may be a reedbed, a group of conifers or a human structure such as a pier. These vast flocks have more humble beginnings, with small flocks of Starlings coming together as dusk approaches. You can see them in late winter in quite a few places, one being Portrack Marsh reserve on Teesside.
If you find the lives of our garden birds to be of interest, and would like to join in and count the feathered occupants of your garden, please contact me or visit the BTO Garden BirdWatch website it’s still free for the moment (www.bto.org/gbw). If you know of an organisation no more than 30 miles from York which would like a talk on garden birds whenever such activities resume, call:
Mike Gray firstname.lastname@example.org.