Blog post by David Buckingham, Senior Conservation Scientist and Vivien Hartwell, Senior Research Assistant, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.

Starlings are one of the UK’s fastest declining species. The question is why?

We think whatever is affecting starlings is happening away from their breeding areas. To investigate, we plan on tracking recently-fledged starlings in Bristol in a new and innovative project. And if you live nearby, you can get involved in our cutting-edge science!Starling and fledgling. Image by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

After starlings fledge in mid-May, we’ll safely catch and fit them with small, lightweight tags. Each tag will give off an individual signal at set radio frequencies, meaning we can identify single birds and follow them.

The aim is to find out where they go, the habitats they use and what threats they face as they disperse away from their nests.

A new approach to tracking

The problem with traditional radio tracking technology is that it’s difficult to follow birds that disperse quickly, like starlings. So, we’re trialling new tracking equipment that will hopefully improve our success.

With the help of volunteers we will deploy two types of receivers: one static - placed in gardens in Bristol - and one portable.

Volunteers can track the tagged starlings by carrying around these small portable devices while travelling throughout the city and its surrounds during their normal day.

It’s that simple – why not get involved?

As this is the beginning of the project we want to trial how effective they will be to projects like this whilst researching what starlings do in the first few months after fledging. If this project works we will look at scaling it up to a larger study in future.

Starling singing. Image by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Using volunteers

The new equipment and using volunteers allows us to cover a wider area than previous studies. With different people covering different areas, we can build up a picture of where the birds go.

We can also follow this up with traditional tracking equipment to further pinpoint the location of the birds the volunteers have found, collecting data on their habitat use and activities in the area.

A previous study in Cambridgeshire was able to track 60% of the tagged birds for one month. We want to improve on this and track a greater percentage of tagged birds for longer. What might have happened to the lost 40% - did they survive to become adults?

Not just tagging

In addition to tagging the young birds, we will fit all starlings we catch with British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) metal and colour rings. We will be putting blue colour rings with individual white letter codes onto the starlings’ left legs.

These colour rings will make it easier for anyone to identify individual birds and report sightings back to us.

Starling with colour ring

These sightings will increase our knowledge of the individual birds movements, help us find out where non-tagged birds go and help us track down the tagged ones if they have moved to an area we have not been able to search with the tracking equipment.

Live in Bristol? Here’s how you can help

There are four different ways you can help. We need:

  1. Gardens to catch starlings in from mid-May in the Bishopston area (BS7)
  2. Gardens to place static monitoring devices to help track the birds in Bishopston and the surrounding districts
  3. People willing to carry the portal tracking equipment whilst they travel around the city and its surrounds
  4. People to send in colour ring sightings from starlings.

Contact us and get involved

If this sounds like something you can help with, please get in touch by emailing: vivien.hartwell@rspb.org.uk

Over the next three weeks I will be setting up the project in Bristol, aiming to start catching starlings and fitting the tags from mid-May.

We really need your help to make this project work and track the birds effectively across Bristol. You’ll be helping increase our knowledge of one of the UK’s quickest declining birds. Knowledge that may help us save starlings. Thank you.

Our Bristol starling tracking project is funded by Natural England through its Action for Birds in England programme (AfBiE).

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