The bird with the stars in its feathers

Our volunteer, David Merry, has a special place in his heart for starlings. Read all about why he thinks these beautiful birds need more recognition.

Starlings are one of the most common birds in our gardens, neighbourhoods and city centres. They can be controversial: reviled by some people, with even some bird lovers feeling ambivalent towards their boisterous antics.

It was after we put the new bird feeder up that the raucous gang conspicuously took over their new territory. My first reaction when the local flock descended was, ”What hoodlums!”, with their loud exuberant chatter and gobbling up of the food on offer. The gang’s behaviour warranted an ASBO. However, the following spring, with the arrival of the newly fledged starlings, I started seeing the true nature of this highly social and intelligent bird.

A juvenile starling developing its adult plumage in our volunteer David Merry's garden

Juvenile starling by David Merry

After fledging we saw these scruffy balls of fluff siting in trees or perched on the bird feeder, all the while noisily demanding food from their hard-pressed mothers. On the ground the newly fledged birds never seemed more than a few hops away from their mother - female starlings are really good parents. Then, a few weeks later, we observed the young birds pushing parents off fat balls to feed. They quickly grew and started fending for themselves within the flock.

With their grey-brownish plumage, juvenile starlings stand out among other birds. As they grow, they start moulting in preparation for winter and get their first spotty adult plumage. Starlings generally have two broods in a year.

The starling, with its purple, blue and green iridescence, has a sheen to its winter plumage, including large white speckles (or stars) for a final flourish - the poor man’s peacock. Henry Mayhew thought of starlings as ‘the poor man’s parrot’ with their gift of mimicry and lustrous plumage. In by-gone Norfolk they were referred to as ’chimney snipes’ on account of their beauty.

A starling perched on a wire fence in the sunshine

Starling by Dawn Monrose

Starlings are not songbirds, but chatterboxes and makers of wonderfully weird noises, as each bird reflects what’s going on around it. In my garden, the impatient chatter and clicking would start whenever I put new fat balls or fresh seed out. When mealworms were thrown down, the volume increased as they summoned all the family groups in the area.

Starlings are well-known as talented mimics, and I swear I once heard one imitating our old terrier. Could this be a warning to other flock members? Nothing, it seems, is beyond the starlings vocal abilities to impersonate song birds, wolf whistles and even the ringtones of phones. There were incredible reports during WWII that starlings mimicked the sound of falling bombs and V rockets.        

In autumn, starlings do something astonishing and give a spectacle that is a true wonder of nature.  Murmurations are still marvelled at today, but with starlings declining across their range, how long will it be witnessed?  Since the 1980s, starling numbers have dropped drastically, so much so that they are now Red-Listed.

I can remember as a boy watching, awestruck, a murmuration over my home town of Bury. Throughout history these dancers in the sky have been part of the urban landscape in Britain.

The poet Coleridge observed a murmuration in London in the winter of 1799 and wrote in his journal, “Starlings in vast flights drove along like smoke, mist, or anything misty without volition... some moments glimmering and shivering, dim and shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening.”

A poet of today, Mary Oliver, in her poem 'Starlings in Winter', must have the last word on the magic of the bird with stars in its feathers:

How they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.