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Spotlight on a starling roost

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 15:42 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010

Guest blogger: Starling expert Chris Feare on how the Autumnwatch camera team helped to confirm fascinating roosting behaviour.

Chris Feare with tame starlings

Chris with a pair of tame starlings.

Back in the late 1970s, I can't remember exactly when, I spent a long winter night in a Norfolk starling roost. The aim was to discover what roosting starlings got up to during the night and, more importantly, to watch their behaviour when they entered the roost site at dusk and as they departed at dawn...

I emerged frozen to the core, exhausted, and smelling to high heaven. But I did learn that descent into the trees, from the magnificent coordinated wheelings above, was accompanied by frenzied activity. This involved a vast amount of noise and fighting before settling into an uneasy sleep interrupted by frequent minor squabbles.

A resurgence of noise preceded departure. The birds left in a series of well-coordinated exoduses rather than en masse. A notable difference between arrival and departure was that the (possibly half-asleep) birds frequently collided as they left the roost, something never seen during entry into the trees.


Starlings over Aberystwyth pier by Lindsay McCrae

Starlings over Aberystwyth pier © Lindsay McCrae

Filming the roosting starlings for Autumnwatch, using the latest photographic technology, cast new light on this wonderful world of nocturnal starling activity.

With infra-red mini-cameras and microphones pre-positioned on the pier's sub-structure, we were able to watch as the birds, some even using the cameras as roost sites, competed for their individual spaces through song, posturing, stabbing with their sharp bills and vicious fighting.


Starlings using a minicam as a roost

Infra-red imaging showed some of the starlings were even using the minicams to roost.

The resulting scene showed a hierarchy of roost site occupation never seen before in wild starlings.

Immediately beneath the pier's floorboards the steel beams were structured in a way that provided mini-alcoves. Each of these was occupied by two or occasionally three birds, distinguishable by their small pale feather tips as adult starlings, each bird defending when necessary its individual space in these sheltered sites.


Thermal image of starlings under Aberystwyth pier

Thermal imaging showed the starlings making use of every alcove and crevice under the pier.

Below them, beams more exposed to wind were also occupied, but the heavily spotted plumage of these birds showed that they were youngsters experiencing their first winter. On the lowest beams pale eye-rings indicated that most of the birds here were young females.

At first, these juveniles spaced themselves out just like the adults above but later they seemed to decide that warmth was more important than space. Then, they huddled together in a long line of tightly packed birds, very difference from their elders above in their comparatively luxurious accommodation.

speckled starlings in the roost

The speckling of the starlings' plumage distinguishes the adults from subdominant juveniles.

The microphones picked up the full range of starling calls: squawks, whistles, rattles and warbles. But we also heard snatches of blackbird, moorhen, tawny owl and curlew, providing evidence that the renowned mimicry used by male starlings on their nest territories is also used within the winter roost.

It was remarkable to see all this behaviour for the first time with such clarity and in such comfort! The set-up of monitors in Aberystwyth pier's rubbish store had the characteristic odour of deep starling guano totally masked by the contents of the bins. But what a pity we did not have these wonderful facilities when we were researching starling roosting behaviour all those years ago!

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Hi,
    Love the item re starlings!
    We have had a flock in Epsom a couple of weeks ago absolutely gorging themselves on our neithbours grape vine!
    Great to watch.

  • Comment number 2.

    how lovely to see the starlings, i love them on tuesday morning i had at least 20 at the bottom of my garden fighting over the feeders.....was so nice to watch. too much rain since so haven't seen them since x

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm in the Merchant Navy and for many years worked in the North Sea, we often had Starlings taking shelter onboard during bad weather sometimes many hundreds. They would roost overnight on the warm flourescent light casings. Many would dis and interestingly birds would perch on the corpses to insulate them from the cold steelwork.

    Stewart

  • Comment number 4.

    I regularly get starlings feeding on the palm tree at the bottom of my garden in Bristol.

    Always remember being awestruck by a massive group of starlings flying around Bristol Temple Meads railway station when I was younger too.

  • Comment number 5.

    During the summer i was working in the garden intermitently using a cordless drill. Only out there during the evening for a couple of hours each day. By the 3rd evening a Starling was sitting on my neighbours roof doing a very good impression of the drill.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    Watching unsprung last evening, we remembered seeing swarms of starlings 4 or 5 years ago in Cyprus.

    Last month in Cyprus, from the balcony we heard a huge racket in the orange grove behind the house, but had not seen a swarm.

    They sounded like starlings (I remember hearing starlings in the trees in central London years ago).

    Are they likely to be starlings?

    We only see a few in the garden in England.

  • Comment number 8.

    Love the starlings,so cheeky. I live right on the coast in west Connemara,Ireland and I have a reed marsh just below the house. I love watching them coming in in the evenings. They all congregate on the electric wires etc,then when they are all present and correct they do their evening performance for a good ten minutes, then to bed!! This morning I was up early enough to watch the morning show. My cat and I sat in amazement as they all seem to come up to the top of the reeds, so gradually the reed bed gets blacker and blacker, then with one big swoosh they are off --- only to the nearest cable wire!!! then off again.However one stayed behind on top of the telegraph post for a couple of minutes,Why do you think this is? Did he just get left behind as he didnt know where he was supposed to be going,OR was he just checking that everyone had left and he was there to pick up any stragglers? A great show last night as have all the rest. Thankyou.

  • Comment number 9.

    I forgot to add in my last comment that last spring I listened to a starling for over an hour making every mimical sound possible,it was fantastic and to be able to pick out every one just shows how clever these little fellas are.

  • Comment number 10.

    We had vast flocks of Starlings near RAF Valley on Anglesey in 2008, roosting in reed beds. Many fewer in 2009 and I have been unaware of them this year. Is there any pattern to their choice of roost sites and over what area will they migrate to during the day? When gathering in the evening earlier birds settled on electricity cables and some of these did not join the later flocks during their formation aerobatics. The decision to descend into the reeds seemed to relate to light levels and was accomplished very quickly. Then the noise began and I am grateful to Chris Feare for explaining what this was all about.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hi Chris,

    I have noticed a behavioural pattern with the starlings in our garden:
    They wait for the black bird to come down to peck on the feed we give them, then the first starling follows, almost immediately flanked by many more.

    The solitary blackbird feels so overwhelmed that, despite the bonanza, stops feeding and leaves the ground to the starlings, that then devour everything, before flying off together.

    The starlings' plot goes like this: "You go first to assess the risk, then I follow you, because I now know it is safe. Once I follow, all my friends will follow too, so I will feel even safer and stronger to frighten you off and gobble the lot".
    Canny and effective!

    I therefore believe that the starlings sing like a blackbird, to take advantage of the blackbird's superior baldness and ability to assess the safety of the patch and use this singing, like a charming nymph.







  • Comment number 12.

    Awesome footage of none other than THE most wonderful, fantastic, captivating starlings! It was pure joy for me to watch the amazing footage of the Starlings roost at Aberystwyth pier. All praise to the BBC and the Autumnwatch team. My eternal gratitude - you rounded up the end of this year perfectly .... in style!

    I regularly feed a large resident flock of starlings in my garden, some times as large as 50, on a daily basis. Since the starling migrant occupation, I now have approximately 70-100 starlings at first light and at around 3pm (last feed of the day) at my feeding station. I guess they find the mealworms, high energy mixed seed, suet balls, suet pellets and cakes irresistible! So sad that these birds haven't won the hearts of most people, who often find them drab and noisy. I adore every feather on their body! Viva la Starlings!

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    have smallholding high above devils bridge, flocks of starlings fly here to feed. we also have red kites flyinh around, when the flocks take off to move to another area of field, the kites fly down and pick off the straglers. have seen them take one only feet from me. could this be a reason for numbers droping?
    during the severe gale the flock nested in our small fir coppices, was outside with dogs at about 6-45am when they started to take of, a fantastic sound and felt very honoured.
    they say bkites only take dead, but have seen them take a robin peached on a fence post.
    tldyyer

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    abersywyth pier saturday 19th february 2011 fantastic sights, we stood for roughly half a hour watching the starlings flock, mesmerising everybody with their aerial displays before settling very nosily under the pier. This is the first time that i have experienced this truly wonderful display. out of this world.

  • Comment number 17.

    i have observed mass gatherings at the Blackpool Leisure beach near the south pier where they completely cover the rails on the big dipper after its stopped for the day. I've no idea where they nest overnight.

 

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