By Rhiannon Jehu
Last month I wrote about how spending time with nature is good for our wellbeing. The Mental Health Foundation describes ‘everyday nature’ as the moments of pleasure that we can snatch regularly throughout the day. Taking a moment to look out the window; stopping to breath in the smell of the sea; chatting to a houseplant while watering it. For me, starlings are a brilliant example of this. They are a common sight; gregarious, argumentative, flapping, squawking and imitating, multi-coloured and shimmering as adults; dazzling with sharp beaks.
In gardening they say that a weed is a successful plant in the wrong place at the wrong time. Equally so with animals; friend or foe depends on context and perspective. Starling’s probing beaks, agility and size mean that they can slip into barns for a quick top up on sheep or hen feed and raid essey bags for our wasted food. They used to be a rare country species but that changed in the 1900’s when they started colonising urban areas and their population boomed. In the evenings, especially in winter, thousands of starlings could be seen gathering together forming clouds, ‘murmuration’s’ which fly in formation before roosting communally. However, when I post photos on Facebook, friends from mainland Scotland tell me that they haven’t seen one in years, and, how much they miss them.
Starlings can live up to 5 years and usually produce 1 or 2 broods a year. However, their numbers are declining dramatically. Between 1995 and 2016 Britain’s breeding population crashed by 51%, though Shetland is still a stronghold. Parents are successfully rearing chicks, but these are failing to survive and thrive. There seems to be no single cause of this. However, laboratory studies suggest that pollutants such as anti-depressants & flame retardants in food and water badly affect starlings so it’s possible that these are reducing the fledgling’s survival rate.
This year the first babies that I saw were in Lerwick. I was passing time waiting for my bus and came across an enormous, very loud nursery. There were fledglings everywhere, all at the same stage of development; chocolate feathers, black beaks and yellow gaping mouths. They were chasing their parents around demanding food and practising much needed flying skills. I saw one try to land on a washing line. It caught hold with its feet, but failed to stop, This resulted in the peerie fellow doing a gymnastic loop before landing (on his feet) on the ground.
I saw my first Quarff chicks a few days later. They were unfledged but enthusiastically waiting to be fed, the bravest ones putting their heads out of the safety of the nest. The parents returning again and again with beaks full of nutritious insects and grubs. A week or so later, now fledglings in the trees, total panic and lots of flapping and crashing as a hooded crow flies overhead. The youths have recognised the danger but still have a lot to learn.
It can be awesome to see the unexpected in everyday life; an otter fishing outside the supermarket, a goldcrest feeding at the side of the road, but there is something special about starlings and having the opportunity to live side by side with them and watch their lives unfold with the seasons.