One of the greatest shows on earth is currently happening nightly just a ten minute walk from my house. It’s free to watch and will hold you mesmerised as, awestruck, you drink in the dazzling ballet unfolding in front of you.
A touch hyperbolic perhaps but, nevertheless, the sunset dance of a vast swooping murmuration of starlings coming to roost on Brighton Pier is one of winter’s unbridled joys.
Many have tried to describe the highly synchronised yet simultaneously shape-shifting mass of a murmuration as it comes to roost. And many have failed to do it justice. Here’s Gerard Manley Hopkins on the subject: “They would settle in a row of trees; then, one tree after another, rising at a signal, they looked like a cloud of specks of black snuff or powder struck from a brush or broom or shaken from a wig, then they would sweep round in whirlwinds.”
And here’s a more recent offering from the author of Bird Therapy, Joe Harkness: “A solid mass that was morphing its shape in unison. A giant bulging sack of birds flattened out like the crest of a wave, then pulled and stretched as it seemed to inflate and deflate, adopting different outlines as it did.”
Tripping the light fantastic
How and why starlings gather in this way remains a partial mystery. The naturalist Gilbert White – the tercentenary of whose birth will be celebrated later this year – believed that they were compelled by love and hunger (er, pretty much two of life’s great motivations for anything!).
Their pre-roost ritual acts as a signalling beacon for other starlings in the vicinity, some of whom fly in from as far away as 50km. Hugely sociable creatures, starlings feed in small flocks during the day and, as the daylight dwindles, head back to a communal roost site where they cram themselves in tightly to keep warm.
Before settling in for the night though, they perform the avian equivalent of the Dance of the Cygnets from Swan Lake. Each bird constantly monitors and matches the movements of its closest 6 or 7 neighbours, and is able to make almost instantaneous adjustments to its flight path. The starlings jostle for the safest position at the centre of the flock, seeking optimum density, far from hungry predators like a peregrine falcon or a sparrowhawk.
In Britain in the winter months, a murmuration can number thousands as the starlings swap the harsh cold of eastern Europe and Russia for our relatively warmer climes. The communal roost can be anywhere from a sheltered woodland or reed bed to an industrial estate or railway station. The Forth Bridge near Edinburgh, Runcorn Bridge in Cheshire and Albert Bridge in Belfast are all popular roosting spots.
In December 2019, as many as 300 starlings were found dead near Llyn Llynwen in Bodedern in Anglesey. A post mortem ascertained that they had died due to “trauma and internal bleeding” but, at the time of writing, the North Wales Police’s Rural Crime team doesn’t seem to be any the wiser about what caused them all to suddenly crash into the road. The plot thickens on learning that a similar incident took place in the same spot 12 years earlier.
In January 2018, hundreds of dead starlings appeared suddenly at the Porta Pia gate in Rome’s Aurelian Walls. Locals likened the scene to something out of a Hitchcock film. Just a couple of days later, the same thing happened in Draper in Utah where thousands of starlings “were just falling out of the sky like leaves.”
Theories about what could have caused such a phenomenon abound, from being hit by a plane to scared to death by a predator to a disturbance in the earth’s electromagnetic force field.
While waiting for answers, it’s worth noting that in Britain starling numbers have fallen by 66% since the mid-70s. So, at the risk of sermonising, take the opportunity this winter to catch one of nature’s most uplifting spectacles while you still can….