Starling Spring

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.

Newly-fledged starlings being fed

Newly-fledged starlings being fed

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:

Fledgling starlings bathing

Fledgling starlings bathing

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.

Where has everybody gone?

Where has everybody gone?

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.

A hopeful youngster

A hopeful youngster

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.

Starling Murmuration at Brighton Pier © Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Starling Murmuration at Brighton Pier © Copyright Christine Matthews and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

7 thoughts on “Starling Spring

  1. sybil

    Your description of these birds is magical. You seem to capture the essence of them and tell us so that we can enjoy these wonderful funny tragic birds. Thank you for helping us to see them more clearly.


  2. arcimboldi studios

    Walking in the local woods in Greenwich last week we saw a Crow fighting with a Magpie on a pathway. The Crow won and proceeded to feast on its adversary. As we got a bit further on we noticed that a crows nest had fallen from the trees and some broken eggs so it seems the magpie got its comeuppance. Great blog as always.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Thanks, I’m glad you like the blog. Your account of the battle between the crow and the magpie is really interesting – I’ve noticed a very deep hostility between these species on several occasions. Once, I was in Lonsdale Square in Islington, watching a crow’s nest, when a dozen young magpies turned up and behaved like complete hooligans – harrassing the crow that was on the nest, and tormenting her partner who tried to shoo them away. Eventually the magpies flew off, but I’m sure they were hoping to get to the eggs or the hatchlings. They remind me a little of aerial monkeys – intelligent, opportunistic and wily. It sounds almost as if in your case, the crow was taking vengeance for his/her destroyed eggs. Not a scientific view, I know, but it’s difficult not to draw such a conclusion….

  3. Pingback: Ordinary Beauties | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

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