Dear Readers, has anyone else noticed how the starlings seem very restless at the moment? Here in East Finchley they’re sitting on the chimney pots and aerials, singing and chattering and occasionally flying into the air, circling and settling back down. I noticed a similar thing last autumn, but hadn’t put two and two together.
I am wondering if these starlings are experiencing Zugunruhe, which roughly translates from the German as ‘migratory restlessness’. I’ve noticed the same in birds such as swallows and house martins, who seem to be almost crawling out of their skins in the days before they migrate, as if they don’t know what to do with themselves. The phenomenon was first observed when migratory birds were kept captive – it was found that they would not only orientate themselves in the direction in which they would normally fly, but that the length of the period of Zugunruhe would be related to the distance of the normal migration.
What’s interesting is that the majority of starlings in the UK no longer migrate (though they are joined in the winter by birds that migrate from northern Europe and return south in the spring). However, it’s been shown that even birds that are now resident seem to have some sort of ancestral memory of the days when they used to take flight in the autumn for a long trip south. Studies have shown that most birds have the potential for migration, which makes a lot of sense: if the food runs out in the area where you live and breed, you might need to move in order to raise your young successfully. Various bird species are changing from being migratory to being resident – some blackcaps, for example, now spend the winter in the UK, a result of milder winters and increased levels of garden feeding. Some birds are not migrating as far as they used to, because food is available closer to home (again, a result of fewer freezing winters). All in all, nature is in a constant state of flux, which is exacerbated by all the human-made changes that are going on. Just as well our feathered friends are as adaptable as they are.
Anyhow, the starlings have now wheeled away, probably to seek out some suet pellets or to sit in one of the plane trees on East Finchley High Street for a good old whistle and bicker. And I need to get stuck into my brand new Open University course (‘Environment: Sharing a Dynamic Planet’), which could not be more relevant. I shall keep you posted of how it’s all going!