Starlings have picked up a lot of human noises too, from speech to chainsaws, car alarms and mobile ringtones.
Raucous garden visitors
When we talk about starlings as visitors to our gardens, people often think of their chattering, squabbling arrival at the bird feeders. They’re certainly very noisy birds! But there’s more to their vocal abilities than a raucous battle over mealworms.
They have a lively, joyful song, which is even said to have inspired Mozart who kept a starling as a pet. They’re also truly amazing impressionists. A starling defending its territory and trying to impress a potential mate will work a variety of sounds into its song. Among a mix of clicks, wheezes and rattles you might hear buzzards, curlews, owls, cats, dogs and frogs! One has even been heard impersonating, with great panache, a captive white-faced whistling duck.
They’ve picked up a lot of human noises too, from speech to chainsaws, car alarms and mobile ringtones. As starlings get older, their songs get more complex as they learn new notes. A discerning female starling will choose the male who has the most impressive repertoire, but females can mimic too. Starlings, like their relatives the myna birds of Asia, can also copy human speech. The Greek philosopher Pliny claimed that in ancient Rome, starlings were taught to speak Latin and Greek!
On a winter evening, starlings can gather in incredible numbers to spend the nights together. Often, they like to settle above or around water, so you’ll see them descend on piers like those in Blackpool and Brighton.
On a winter evening, starlings can gather in incredible numbers to spend the nights together among trees, hedges, reedbeds or buildings. Often, they like to settle above or around water, so you’ll see them descend on piers like those in Blackpool and Brighton. Here, they may feel safer from predators.
But it’s in the moments before they start roosting that the real magic happens. In flocks that can reach tens of thousands, starlings swoop and swirl together in mesmerising aerial displays. We call this seasonal spectacle a “murmurations”, a name that perfectly sums up the sound of all those whirring wings. It’s an unforgettable sight.
As the starlings settle down for the evening, sometimes hungry birds of prey will try to snatch them in the air. The gigantic clouds of birds dramatically change shape, dodging a sparrowhawk or peregrine. The starlings’ movements often baffle the raptors, who find it hard to pick a bird from the midst of the fast-moving flock.
Find out more about starling murmurations here: www.rspb.org.uk/starlingmurmurations
But all is not well for starlings: their numbers in England alone declined by 87% between 1967 and 2015.
What you can do for starlings
If you’re lucky enough to watch a large winter starling flock, it might seem there are plenty of these characterful little birds around.
But all is not well for starlings: their numbers in England alone declined by 87% between 1967 and 2015, making them one of our fastest disappearing birds. But you can help. If you have a lawn, keep areas of it short so the starlings can have easy access to insects in the soil below. These will thrive if you avoid using chemicals. In fact, generally boosting insect numbers by adding a pond, wildflower meadow, compost heap or log pile will help a variety of birds, including starlings and house sparrows by providing them with food.
So next time you’re visited by a rowdy gang of starlings, remember these cheeky birds have remarkable hidden talents, and that they need a helping hand.