Dear Readers, I had my second vaccination yesterday (Astra Zeneca, bit of a sore arm but so far none of the flu symptoms that sent me to bed last time). As I walked back to the house, I heard a familiar wheezing sound and there, on the handrail, was the first of this year’s starlings. What a fluffy little dude s/he is! And how completely lacking in any sense of danger. As I’ve noted before, the starlings that survive are the ones that pretty quickly pick up on the alarm calls and the behaviour of the birds around them (and not just their own species either – I’m pretty sure that the alarm calls of robins and blue tits put them on high alert too).
The adult starlings seem to be able to identify whose chick is whose, but the chicks will beg from any passing adult. Who could resist them? They couldn’t be any more plaintive. Anyone would think that they hadn’t eaten for weeks. Just as well I’m well stocked up with live mealworms and suet pellets.
By the time they’ve finished I’ll have to take the wire wool to the hand rails again – the fledglings love to perch here, and to run along it like some toddler on a low wall, and to basically crap everywhere. It won’t take them long to begin pecking at things themselves – last year I was astonished at how quickly they learned to get the pellets out of the suet feeder, which requires a fair measure of dexterity.
This will be the tenth generation of starlings that I’ve fed in the garden. The Breeding Bird Survey shows a decline of 63% in London from 1995-2018, and places where they used to gather in their thousands (such as Leicester Square and St James’s Park) seem to be bereft of them these days. I remember watching a murmuration in St James’s Park with Mum back in the ’80s, when great flocks of the birds reeled and turned over the islands in the middle of the lake, before settling down to roost. You can still see birds in the low thousands at places like Rainham Marshes, Walthamstow Wetlands and Beddington Farmlands, but ‘proper’ murmurations seem to be rarer and rarer. And so, every noisy, messy youngster is precious, especially as they are taken in huge numbers by cats and corvids, and as they are forever getting tangled in things and drowning themselves.
This spring has been cold compared to last year, so I suspect the amount of insect prey is lower – no self-respecting caterpillar is going to hatch while there is still frost on the ground. What will happen to our bird life as the seasons, so delicately tuned, start to become more unpredictable? In towns and cities, feeding softens the blow, and because these places are warmer than the surrounding countryside the effect might not be felt quite so severely. And soon there will be hawthorn berries, and it looks like a good year for the fruit on the rowan and the whitebeam. There are things that we can do to help our besieged wildlife, and the sight of the fledglings always gives me hope.