I woke up on Monday morning to a familar sound:
For me, this is an indication that spring has finally started for real. The starlings of East Finchley have fledged, and emerged from their nests in the hollow trees of Coldfall Wood, and under the eaves of the Victorian houses on the High Road. The babies are ‘parked’ in the trees while the adults find food for them. As they get a little older, they realise that there is something edible on the bird table, and so they join their parents so that they don’t have to wait.
Sometimes, the racket is unbelievable. I have counted fifty starlings in my hawthorn tree, and for a week or so it’s difficult to sleep in past first light. The babies treat the garden as a playground. Some decide to bathe in the pond:
Last year, a fledgling drowned in the pond, so I’ve added a branch to make sure that they can stay safe. But the young starlings are so naive.
An alarm call will sound, because a cat has sneaked in under the hedge, or a sparrowhawk has been spotted, but some of the babies will stay where they are, blinking and looking around without any indication of nervousness.
Last year, I was drinking some tea when I saw a scruffy jay fly past the kitchen window, holding what seemed to be an old book with its pages fallen open. Grabbing my binoculars, I saw that it had a young starling by the wingtip. The jay landed on the flat roof of the shed. The parent birds mobbed it, shrieking and flapping, but it was unfazed, ducking and peering around while the fledgling dangled, shrieking, from its beak. After a few minutes the jay dropped the struggling bird, held it down with a scaly foot, and stabbed it twice, three times with its bill. I winced. I knew that jays were opportunistic, intelligent birds, but I had never seen anything like this. As the jay started to pluck the youngster, the parents flew back to the bird table and collected more mealworms. They must have had another baby close by, maybe hidden in the bushes, and now all their efforts would be concentrated on those who are still alive. Nature is nothing if not pragmatic.
This year, I haven’t noticed any fatalities. I have seen the sparrowhawk twice, each time accompanied by a phalanx of adult starlings, shrieking at it open-billed. The sparrowhawk relies on surprise, so it is not dangerous once it has been spotted.
In a few weeks’ time, it will all be over for another year. The fledglings will be nearly grown, and able to feed for themselves. The noise, and mess will die down, and I will no longer need to top the birdtable up three times a day. But I will miss them. These gregarious, feisty, garrulous birds seem like quintessential Londoners to me.
I remember that, about twenty years ago, there was a massive starling roost on the island in the middle of St James’s Park. I sat on a bench once with my mother, and we watched the birds flying in from all corners of London. They swirled and roiled in like smoke, the plumes joining together and splitting apart until they finally all settled down. This, along with the great roost in Leicester Square, disappeared years ago, after the spectacle was deemed not to be worth all the noise and mess. These days, I think you need to go to Brighton to watch anything similarly impressive, as the starlings roost under the West Pier. Our urge to tidy and to contain seems to me to make the world a smaller, less interesting place.