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Starling super-flocks

Posted: Friday 16th October 2015 by Alice Hunter

Starling murmuration - Elliott Neep

Alice Hunter looks at the fascinating reasons behind the mesmerising starling murmurations which are so much a part of Autumn.

I’m sure many of us have seen incredible images of starling murmurations in the past, be it on television shows like the BBC’s Autumnwatch or in magazines and newspapers. There is something rather magical about the shapes they create and the sheer number of birds in the air at one time. How they don’t crash into one another is quite another matter!

The reason they murmurate is up for debate but one thing is clear; they roost in areas that provide shelter from harsh weather and seek safety in numbers. The murmurations themselves are often punctuated by birds of prey such as Sparrowhawks or sometimes even Peregrine Falcons, but the volume of birds in the sky makes it more difficult for the predator to lock on to a single bird as a target. It is also thought that they gather to communicate & keep warm on colder nights.

Some roosts can hold as many as 100,000 birds and, while this is more common in places like the Somerset Levels where there are larger roost areas available to them, in winter the numbers are boosted by migrants from the continent so can change from year to year. Despite these large numbers, the murmurations are much smaller than they once were, with Starling populations in decline by up to 70% over recent years.

Starlings may put on a fantastic show but there are also other super-flocks to look out for at this time of year as other migrants arrive in large numbers. Wood pigeons congregate in large flocks to feed together, while winter thrushes like Fieldfares and Redwing migrate en masse and often at night to stay safe from predators. You can listen for their whistling contact calls on calm evenings as they fly overhead.

Autumn is the perfect time to get out and see this spectacle for yourself. The birds start to congregate at roost sites from mid-October onwards and will remain there until spring. The best time of day to watch them is late afternoon into the evening when they are returning to the roost for the night. A good spot in this area is Springwell Reed Bed in the Colne Valley which is adjacent to Stockers Lake


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