Everyday Nature: Starling Surprises

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.

Yellow summer beaks. Males have a blue beak base & a females pink one.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
Self-care is essential for survival. Copyright
Rhiannon Jehu

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.

(https://www.birdguides.com/articles/conservation/the-decline-of-british-starlings/)

Lunching with the neighbours. They all have black winter beaks.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

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.

Waiting hopefully.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
A nutritious breakfast for the nestlings.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

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.

Waiting loudly with training wings working.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

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.


Summer Holiday Project #3- Make your own BIOGAS

This week is all about science. We want you to head back to the shore to collect more seaweed so that you can make your own renewable energy source- BIOGAS.

BIOGAS is made up of methane and carbon dioxide which can be used as a renewable source of fuel or turned into electricity and heat. Seaweed is a great material for making BIOGAS as seaweed farming is environmentally sustainable, but you can also give it a try with grass cuttings or food waste. You can also try changing the conditions in which you make your BIOGAS, try putting it in a sunny spot or dark cupboard, a warm or cold place- what happens?

Download our BIOGAS leaflet to get started.


Summer Holiday Project #2- Make a Wave with Marine Litter

This week will take you back to the beach to do a beach clean, great for helping nature by removing plastic from our seas and coastlines BUT dont throw it away, you’re going to need it for this weeks art project.

We will be using the marine litter to create a piece of wave art. You can get as creative as you like experimenting with different shapes, colours and textures. It is amazing the varity of man-made items that end up on our beaches!

Download our Make a Wave with Marine Litter leaflet to get started.