In recent weeks the skies above the Whitecross area of Hereford have turned black every evening just before dusk. A large flock of starlings, called a murmuration, gathers together before heading off to roost.
These birds collect together for warmth and protection from predators. It is also thought that they are social birds and exchange information with each other. They are very good mimics and have been known to incorporate ring tones into their songs.
The starling used to be a very common bird in the UK, but it is estimated that their numbers have dropped by 70% due to habitat loss and farmland chemicals. Their numbers are boosted in the winter by migratory birds.They are a little smaller than blackbirds and appear quite dark, but their feathers have a very pretty metallic sheen of purple and green that shimmers in the light. They are rather noisy, quarrelsome birds.
There has been a lot of research into these large, aerobatic flocks – basically how do they not crash in to each other? It seems that only the seven nearest starlings are important to each individual and it is a matter of moving when they move. There are more details about the science here.
As ever, Shakespeare has something to say on the matter; he alludes to the bird’s skill at mimicry in Henry IV:
Nay, I will; that’s flat:
He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll holla ‘Mortimer!’
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
Indeed, rumour has it that it was a group of Shakespeare fans that introduced the starling to the USA in the 1890’s.
These particular photos were taken from the car park of the Aldi store in Hereford, next to the Great Western Way cycle and footpath. I don’t know where they actually settle to roost.The starling does not crop up often in popular art, unlike the robin for example. However, I did find this painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, dated around 1526-28. It is thought to be of Anne Lovell, the pet squirrel may be because her family’s coat of arms contained squirrels and the starling is thought to be a visual pun on the family home at East Harling, clever eh?
There are some better photos and more information on this blog post here.