Some may say that it is too early to be watching Christmas classics such as The Nutcracker, but there’s another ballet on display this season – a bird ballet of starling murmurations!

Image: A starling murmuration at sunset. Credit: Katie Nethercoat, rspb-images.com

What is a starling murmuration?

A murmuration is when hundreds or even thousands of starlings come together in a breath-taking improvised aerial dance. They swoop, ascend, dive, and lift in a cloud of orchestrated patterns that once led scientists to theorise that starlings must have physic powers.

Throughout the country in October/November time, starling numbers swell as migratory birds from places like Scandinavia join our resident flocks to spend the colder months in the UK, meaning these spectacles can see up to thousands of birds dance at any one time. 

Why do starlings murmurate?

We think that starlings murmurate for a number of reasons, namely warmth, information exchange, and safety. In the autumn and winter starlings huddle together at night to share body heat and tips about where to find food - but to a predator, thousands of starlings swooping in to land looks very much like a carousel buffet.

Starlings seek refuge in numbers, gathering in these swirling ballets to confuse predators much like a shoal of fish. It’s much harder to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands. Being in a huge mass, swirling round the sky is confusing to predators such as sparrowhawks, peregrines or marsh harriers that may get among them. If they do, it keeps the starlings whirling round for ages.

The word ‘murmuration’ itself comes from the murmuring sound that all those thousands of wings make as they beat simultaneously. If you are ever stood underneath them whilst they are doing this, it is an incredible experience as you really do hear a whoosh of wings - just remember to put your hood up and close your mouth as it can rain with starling poo!

Why do they not crash into one another? Well it is to do with their reaction times. Starlings can react to each others movement in less than 100 milliseconds (as opposed to the average human reaction time of 215 milliseconds), so they avoid collisions.


Image: people gather to watch the starlings over a reedbed. Credit: Nigel Francis, rspb-images.com

When to go and see them?

Autumn roosts generally start to form in November, though this varies from site-to-site and more starlings tend to gather as the weeks go by. The murmurations often go on into January or February, so there’s a nice open window of time for you to see one!

It’s best to be at the location a bit before dusk – that’s when the starlings will start to gather for the night and you’ll start to see a murmuration forming.

Where can you see them?

To see some for yourself, check out these RSPB reserves! As with any nature spectacle nothing is guaranteed, but if you keep an eye on twitter and websites such as starlingsintheuk.co.uk for the latest sightings, you’ll have the best chance of seeing these seasonal bird dances.

RSPB Dungeness, Kent

RSPB Exminster and Powderham Marshes, Devon

RSPB Fairburn Ings, West Yorkshire

RSPB Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire

RSPB Leighton Moss, Lancashire

RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk

RSPB Saltholme, Middlesbrough

RSPB St Aidans, West Yorkshire

Across the border: 

RSPB Mersehead, Scotland 

RSPB Conwy, Wales

RSPB Newport Wetlands, Wales

RSPB Portmore Lough, Northern Ireland

Image: A starling perches on a garden fence. Credit: Ben Andrew, rspb-images.com

How to help starlings on your own doorstep

Despite the incredible size of the flocks, starling numbers are just a fraction of what they used to be. Huge starling flocks used to gather over Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast, but starling numbers have fallen by more than 80 per cent in recent years (with 50 million starlings lost in the UK since the 1960s) and they are now on the red list of UK birds. This is due to a whole host of reasons including harmful farm chemicals, a decline in nesting sites, and loss of habitat all across the UK.

You can do lots to help your local starlings, however, right in your own local space! They need food, water, and shelter, so here are some ideas to help your local starlings. For more inspiration, please visit Nature on Your Doorstep:

  • Food - you can put out bird feeders (suet and mealworms go down a treat), plant greenery that produces fruit or attracts invertebrates for starlings to eat, or if you’ve got a bit more space even create log piles or bug hotels which will become thriving homes for creepy-crawlies. Some of their favourite food is leatherjackets (the larvae of daddy longlegs), so not spraying your lawn with chemicals can help too.
  • Water – an upcycled mini pond or bird bath will slake starlings’ thirst, as well as giving them a handy bathing spot when their feathers need cleaning.
  • Shelter - a nestbox is a great way to give them somewhere to huddle in cold weather, and they might even use the same nestbox in spring to raise their chicks. Planting trees is also a big help and gives starlings and other birds a place to shelter from the winds.

Who knows, with enough encouragement you might have a mini-bird ballet of your own in a few years!

Image: Starlings form a dolphin-like shape over RSPB Fairburn Ings. Credit: Ben Hurst, rspb-images.com

Following a visit to RSPB Leighton Moss in Lancashire to see a starling murmuration, one talented visitor Sarah Clark penned this lovely poem about her experience:

I’m not a great birder and I can only name a few

It was seeing starlings on the telly which totally changed my view

These birds were coming in to roost and playing in the sky

Formation flying in their thousands, right before my eyes

I was riveted and decided then and there I had to see

A live performance of these birds in close company

 

Sometime later Dave made my wish come true

Off we went to Leighton Moss just we two

Travelling through fog and rain down the M6

Fearing we’d not see starlings through the thick mist

However we arrived just in time to see a sight

Which was everything I had wished for, as it slipped from day to night

I filmed the scene unfolding with arms over my head

Due to the height of the surrounding reeds in their bed

My camera caught our voices too and I clearly stated

“That’s what I came for Dave” in a voice of one elated

We watched for a while longer until the murmuring was over

Those starlings must love their life, more than any pig in clover

Only rarely do we do something, we have wished for

It was truly brilliant Dave! I couldn’t ask for more

Anonymous