Arriving back from a morning walk, I was met by the sight of several Starlings soaring swallow-like in the airspace above the garden and house. With a deep blue sky and a welcome warmth in the air I immediately knew what this apparent identity crisis was all about.
Starlings are a ‘marmite’ species for garden birdwatchers, we appear to be split between those who find them loud, uncouth, aggressive and are incensed by what is perceived as bullying behaviour at the feeders and bird table and those that love them for their incredibly colourful plumage sheen and character. I confess I hold them in high regard, they are, despite their raucous squabbling occasionally a bird that has adapted to man and all we throw at them. They grub for ‘leatherjackets’ (crane-fly larvae) on our neatly-trimmed lawns thrown up to replace farm fields and meadows that would have provided traditional summer foraging. A tree-hole/cavity nester they have exploited the nooks and crannies in our houses, slipping into the spaces between tiles or gaps in facias to raise their noisy broods.
In winter as a child living near a large harbour roost site we were treat with the regular spectacle of whirling, swirling murmurations of Starlings several thousand strong as they descended onto our roofs before launching skyward en masse again and into the roost. The noise was spectacular, the occasional splatter of liquid guano on an unsuspecting head less so! Though very amusing if it happened to someone else and would have us kids rolling with laughter if we witnessed a direct hit.
Sadly like many species Starlings have declined, in fact they are down by nearly two thirds since the 1970’s. Conservation organisations speculate about the causes of the decline but are yet to be sure about the key drivers, though it’s thought that as they are heavily dependent on soil invertebrates like earthworms and leatherjackets it is possible this food supply has either declined or perhaps become less available during dry summers. It’s likely that this reduction in their key food sources is down to modern agricultural practices and changes in land use. Putting out fat balls can be a great way to offset this. It’s also one of the reasons why the latest fad for artificial lawns is another terrible blow to a species that is already red-listed.
This morning’s Starlings were all adults and they were hawking for winged insects, presumably the warmth in the air causing a fly or ant species to emerge in numbers. It won’t be long before they are joined by their plainer brown offspring making daily forays onto the suet and fatball feeders to supplement their natural diet. If you want to attract Starlings into your garden suet certainly seems to be the supplementary food of choice, just don’t expect them to behave…
Our Garden Birder’s Diary is written by Northumberland-based birder Alan Tilmouth who has been birdwatching for over 30 years and writing about birds in various guises for the last decade. A keen garden birdwatcher, he also manages to unearth the odd rare bird on his travels. You can find Alan on Twitter and his Facebook blog.