Thursday, 17 November 2016
Well, what do you know? The starlings are making a comeback.
I remember being stopped in my tracks, back in the early 1980s when I regularly used to find myself at Temple Meads railway station in Bristol at dusk, by the spectacle of tens of thousands of tightly-massed starlings pulling astonishing liquid shapes in the sky, as if controlled by a single whimsical intelligence, determined to have a bit of fun before allowing them all to drop under the shelter of the station roof to roost for the night. The first time I saw it I thought I must be hallucinating, as I was standing there, open-mouthed and amazed, but nobody else seemed to be paying the slightest attention. They never did. Then someone filmed starlings doing their bedtime sky-writing for a TV programme, and suddenly everyone had permission to notice them. I'm told you could sign up for starling-watching trips out to the Somerset Levels (despite the fact that this spectacle was happening every evening over most large city centres). People's ability to blank out the extraordinary never ceases to amaze me; mind you, I expect there are distinct evolutionary advantages in not standing around gawping at the way a charging lion's mane is catching the sunlight.
Mysteriously, starling populations crashed either side of the millennium, as did those of other very common birds, in particular the house sparrow. No one really knows why, but for many years the sight of either species – formerly so ubiquitous as to be a bit of a pest – was cause for comment. I never once saw a house sparrow in Southampton from 1984 until about three years ago, when that unmistakable monotonous cheeping sound started to be heard again in garden shrubbery. This year I keep seeing small flocks of starlings – about 50 birds – exploding out of trees as I do my regular walks across the Common and the Sports Ground. It seems they are recovering, and maybe soon those small flocks will be coalescing into one enormous flowing organism over this city, too. I really look forward to it.