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Starling flocks: a wild spectacle

Large flock of starlings congregating at dusk

Murmuration exaltation: a starling flock forms a fantastic acrobatic mass before roosting

Image: David Kjaer

During autumn, dark clouds begin to form in the sky above fields, woodlands and reedbeds. But these are no ordinary clouds. They are one of the UK's most incredible wildlife spectacles.

Throughout the autumn and winter months, hundreds of thousands of starlings turn the sky black around the UK. The birds come together in huge clouds, wheeling, turning and swooping in unison.

You can see this jaw-dropping wildlife spectacle, known as a 'murmuration', on many of our nature reserves and other sites.

Watch them swoop the loop

Play our video to see starlings performing this fantastic display at RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes nature reserve in Cambridgeshire.

Early evening, just before dusk, is the best time to see them across the UK as they perform their aerial dance and choose their communal night-time shelter. They roost in places that are sheltered from harsh weather and predators.

They tend to roost in woodlands, but reedbeds, cliffs, buildings and industrial structures are also used. During the day, however, they form daytime roosts at exposed places such as treetops, where the birds have good all-round visibility.

Autumn roosts usually begin to form in November, though this varies from site to site and some can begin as early as September. More and more birds will flock together as the weeks go on, and the number of starlings in a roost can swell to around 100,000 in some places.

The huge gatherings are at their largest in winter, as they are boosted by thousands of migrant birds visiting from Europe for Britain's milder Atlantic climate.

Why do they do it?

Starlings join forces for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird amidst a hypnotising flock of thousands.

'The starling roost is one of the most incredible natural spectacles we enjoy here in the UK and they are so easy to see.' Johann Holt, RSPB

Starlings also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas. They often feed miles away from where they roost - sometimes up to 20 miles away. They return to their roosting site at around the same time each evening.

Their timing is so precise that the RSPB's Johann Holt says: 'In many cases they are like clockwork – you know that at a certain time in the evening the sky will start to turn black, and it's mesmerizing watching the flock grow and grow.'

Once inside the roost, starlings take their time to settle and are quite vocal. Noise levels increase again towards dawn, and the birds leave in waves. These flocks can be detected on radar, which allows detailed monitoring of their movements.

Don't be fooled by big flocks

Despite the incredible size of the flocks, these numbers are just a fraction of what they used to be. Huge starling flocks used to gather over Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast, but you have a much better chance of seeing the birds in rural areas.

The starling population has crashed by over 70% in recent years, meaning they are now on the critical list of UK birds most at risk.

The decline is believed to be due to the loss of permanent pasture, increased use of farm chemicals and a shortage of food and nesting sites in many parts of the UK.

Where can I see them?

The RSPB’s Johann Holt says: 'We are very honoured that the flocks choose so many of our reserves for night-time shelter, but many roost near well known tourist destinations like Brighton Pier, too.'

Popular sites to see starlings include Gretna Green in Dumfries and Galloway, and Brighton Pier, Sussex. Several of our reserves make great viewing spots too. These include Leighton Moss, Lancashire; Saltholme, Middlesbrough; Ham Wall, Somerset; Newport Wetlands, Newport; and Snape, Suffolk.

To find out more about where to go and see starlings near you, visit our reserves webpages.