If you were watching the nine o’clock news programme on RTE One last Sunday you’ll have seen some amazing footage of flocks of starlings flying above Belfast, swirling and swooping in the darkening skies, looking more liquid than solid, twisting and turning like ink dropped into water. Starlings’ habit of congregating in the evenings is most common in winter, and the flocks’ numbers swell substantially at this time of year, when birds from as far away as Russia visit Ireland. Some flocks have been estimated to number over a million birds. Despite the huge flocks that congregate not only in towns but also in rural areas, the common starling isn’t as common as it once was: in Britain it is now officially an endangered species, its population there having declined by over half in the last 25 years.
The regular evening gathering, which takes place just before the birds roost for the night – in trees or on buildings – is known, rather charmingly, as a “murmuration”: less charmingly, their droppings can create enormous problems in towns and cities. In 1949 so many of the birds landed on Big Ben in London that they stopped the clock. Flocks of starlings have also been known to damage aircraft, and in 1960 a plane taking off from Boston crashed after flying into a flock of starlings. In European and American cities various methods have been used to disperse the birds – netting, hawks, poison, and loudhailers broadcasting starlings’ alarm calls – with varying degrees of success.
The most devastating effects of starlings, though, are felt in North America, where the starling is not a native bird – and it’s all down to one man. An eccentric drug manufacturer and thwarted actor by the name of Eugene Schieffelin decided, for some reason known only to himself, to introduce into the USA all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. He found a reference to a starling in Henry IV (“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak / Nothing but ‘Mortimer’ . . .” ), so in 1890 Schieffelin duly acquired 60 birds and released them in Central Park, New York. As if this were not enough, he did the same with another 40 birds a year later. While his attempts to introduce bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales and skylarks were doomed (though he was more successful with house sparrows ), the starlings adapted astonishingly well to their new surroundings, and by 1970, only 80 years later, starlings could be found in virtually all parts of the United States, from Alaska to the Mexican border, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts. It’s estimated that American starlings now comprise a third of the total world population of the species, and they are considered an invasive species in the USA.
However, in Russia the picture is somewhat different: starlings are viewed as harbingers of spring, and seen as farmers’ allies, not as their enemy. Perhaps it’s because they emigrate south and west in winter – absence makes the heart grow fonder. And in Asia the rosy starling, a relation of our common starling, is valued for its ability to eat huge quantities of locusts, which would otherwise ravage crops.
Starlings are extraordinarily good mimics, imitating not only other birds but also urban sounds such as ringing phones, car alarms and sirens – and it’s said that Mozart owned a starling that he taught to whistle part of one of his piano concertos.
They are extraordinarily beautiful birds, too. While the juvenile bird’s plumage is a greyish greenish brown, and in winter the adult birds are a rather dull brown, enlivened by pale white spots, an adult bird’s summer purple and emerald plumage gives it a truly regal appearance.