Photo: Starling murmuration at Newport Wetlands, Sarah Parmor

The starlings’ magnificent roosting spectacle is one of the great wildlife highlights at Newport Wetlands. November and December are the best months to view this fabulous aerial display when flocks of around 50k birds will come to roost in the reedbeds. Unfortunately we were unable to feature any starlings events in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions but let's hope by the time we get to November 2021 we will again be able to fully enjoy the starlings once more. As we approach mid-January it is likely the starlings will now be seeking roost sites elsewhere and many probably join the larger roosting sites across the water in Somerset.

West is best

The large numbers of starlings that appear in late Autumn are mostly from the continent as birds move west escaping the cold, east European winter weather. Starlings are not well adapted for feeding on frozen ground and even in the UK they are more commonly found in western sites where winter temperatures are more likely to stay above freezing. Wales is lucky enought to have several recognised large starlings roost sites, including Anglesey, Aberystwyth and of course Newport. One of the largest roost sites is in Somerset where over a million starlings can roost in the reedbeds of RSPB Ham Wall.

Through the winter small flocks of starlings are commonly found feeding on the ground across farmland and stubble fields. They can be seen perched together along pylon wires in areas close to their roost sites. As sunset approaches they flock together in larger numbers in preparation to roost. The reasons for the murmuration behaviour is still somewhat of a mystery but it is thought that it may be a way of advertising a good roost site to incoming birds, safety in numbers strategy and for evading predators. We know that starlings rely on their vision to murmuate. They can watch up to seven 'neighbours' at a time, avoiding collisions by keeping the same distance and flying at the same speed as each other. The end of a murmuation will often be abrupt as the flock dives into the reedbed for the night. Extremely sociable birds, they chatter away for quite a time in the cover of the reeds, almost as if they are recounting the events of the day with their neighbours. Huddling close together is a good way of keeping warm as overnight temperatures plummet and reeds fall silent.

The video below shows how starlings can twist and turn together to evade predation, in this case being chased by a couple of peregrines that were working together. Even though the video is only a brief highlight, this chase went on for several minutes... as fast and agile aerial predators as peregrines are, they were not successful in this instance.

Video: Peregrine pair chasing starlings - Sarah Parmor

Photo: Starling huddle - Sarah Parmor. Starlings are social birds and will often preen or chatter away to each other  

Photo: Starlings at sunrise - Sarah Parmor. This time of year we still see smaller groups of starlings, often feeding in open fields.

Red listed

Unfortunately like many of our well known British birds, the story of the starling is not going well. Numbers have declined dramatically over the past 50 years. In the UK we only have about 11% of the starlings we had in the late 1960s. The scale of their decline has meant they were given ‘red listed’ status in 2004 and for now, there they remain. The reasons for this are likely multifactorial but a major factor are the changes in farming practices over recent decades and in particular the use of pesticides. This has impacted the food source of starlings by reducing the soil invertebrates that make up a large part of their diet. High intensity farming and over grazing also reduces the ideal sward height necessary for these invertebrates to thrive. Interestingly the breeding success of starlings doesn’t appear to be affected but adult survival over winter, particularly of the juvenile birds is likely the major issue.

What can we do?

We can put out food and water in our gardens. Starlings love to feed on fat or mealworms but will also probe around in your lawn for crane-fly larvae and other invertebrate

We can join and support conservation organisations such as the RSPB. A core priority of the RSPB is policy advocacy. The more members the organisaiton has, the bigger the voice with which to lobby government and decision makers on environmental issues

Try to shop sustainably and organically where possible. Supporting local and low intensity providers increases demand for this way of food production which in turn benefits wildlife reliant on natural farmland habitat

As you can tell, at Newport Wetlands we love everything about starlings. it doesn't matter how many murmurations you have seen, the marvel is that each one is unique... and I'd like to think says something about  the character of these fabulous little birds.

Thanks to a great effort by Jeremy White and Stefan Zitzmann, we now have a large factfile on all things #starlings at the Wetlands and this has been the major source for this blog. We very much look forward to seeing you all again once we are open and being able to share this with you...