The Europeans are coming. European starlings that is. Thousands of them come to the UK every Autumn to enjoy our mild climate. I guess they don't check the Met Office webpages before setting off, but even though it is cold and windy, the birds come here because food is easier to find, and that means survival. We all like survival.
The great thing about having all these extra starlings is that it makes for more spectacular displays when they gather in large flocks and perform that mind boggling aerial dance they do, called a murmuration. Cameraman and conservationist Dylan Winter recorded one of these amazing shows at RSPB Otmoor near his home in Oxfordshire.
Sadly. You won't see clouds of starlings like that depicted in Dylan's film here in London. You used to. Starlings are still our second most common garden birds in London, and were reported in more than half of the gardens surveyed in the Capital for the 2010 Big Garden Birdwatch. Their numbers have dropped considerably in London since the late 1940's, when the sheer weight of starlings perched on the arms of Big Ben stopped the clock in its tracks.
So where are the shadows of those dense clouds of starlings in London? If you know of a spot anywhere in London where mini clouds of starlings 'murmurate', please do let me know. There's a growing host of them at our Rainham Marsh reserve, with about ten thousand starlings swirling together of an afternoon. If you want to see them, get there before 4.30pm when the gates close.
So what is this smoky cloud dance all about? Research is ongoing into the 'hows and whys'. What is known is that it's partly safety in numbers from predators. It's also a way to warm-up before the long cold night ahead and it's also about each bird finding its place within the crowd. The more dominate birds secure the sfaest night perches. Less dominate birds end up roosting on the fringes where they may be easier prey.
Technology has cast some light on how it's achieved. High definition photography, linked with computer mapping, shows flocking birds move in relation to the six or seven closest neighbours and that each member of the flock has clear space ahead but can be close to its neighbours, left, right, above and below. Each member of the collective reacts to the movements of its half dozen neighbours, creating those chaotic clouds of mass bodies that somehow never collide. It is one of the world's greatest natural wonders.
On a smaller scale, wagtails perform some pretty good shows when they roost of an evening, and this may be more common in London than a starling murmuration. I've heard rumours of wagtail performances in the trees near Selfridges and another in Croydon. Please do let me know of any near you, or share your films or photos. If you're anywhere near Dulwich tomorrow (Saturday 13 Nov), you can drop in to the Christmas Fair to meet either Lyndon or Abbi from the RSPB London Team to share your stories and buy an RSPB Gift Membership for Christmas.