The Zoologist/4th series, vol 4 (1900)/Issue 705/The Movements of Starlings, Forrest
Starlings are so familiar to us all, whether living in town or country, that it would be natural to suppose we know all about their habits and economy, and that it would be almost impossible to find anything fresh to say about them. Up to a very recent date the writer was of the same opinion; but certain events led to his making investigations, and these have resulted in the penning of the present article, which he hopes will at least add to our knowledge of the movements of these interesting birds at different seasons of the year.
Perhaps no habit of the Starling has been more often described than their collecting in multitudes in autumn to roost together in reed-beds, &c. This may conveniently be made the startingpoint in our investigations, and Shropshire the field of our enquiries.
The following is a list of the principal "roosts" in the county, with details as to the character of each place, and the name of the observer who has reported on the same:—
Alkmond Pool, two miles north of Shrewsbury.—A small sheet of water with trees on one side, and beds of osiers and reeds on projecting tongues of land on opposite sides. The Starlings roost on the reeds in tens of thousands.—H.E. Forrest.
Moreton Corbet, six miles north-east of Shrewsbury.—A coppice called Dawson's Rough; one of the biggest roosts in the county. The Starlings here probably number over a million, and roost on the hazel underwood. Pheasants roost on the big trees, but the odour of the Starlings and their droppings causes them to quit each year. The keepers have tried to drive away the Starlings by shooting, &c, but without any final success.—W.H. Parry.
Colemere Mere, Ellesmere.—A large sheet of water with extensive reed-beds. The Starlings used to resort to the reeds in countless numbers, but during the last few years have come in greatly reduced numbers.— Brownlow R.C. Tower.
Llanforda, Oswestry.—In a wood.—G.D. Lees.
Chorlton, near Whitchurch.—In a covert. The birds came in millions, and destroyed the trees and undergrowth.—G.D. Lees.
Breidden Hills.—Two coverts at Great Woolasson.—Rev. W.F.L. Harrisou.
Nesscliffe.—At the south end of Ensdon Clump, in bushes.—Chas. Kempster.
Baschurch.—By the pool in Boreatton Park, in shrubs.—E.H.O. Sankey.
Ruyton XI. Towns.—In a wood; and at Fennymere, a reedy pool surrounded by trees.—E.H.O. Sankey.
Caynton, Newport.—In the reeds round the pool, and in an osier-bed.—G.H. Paddock.
Rowton Gorse, near Crudgington Station.—A Fox-covert, mainly privet bushes. Starlings roost here in such numbers that they drive the Foxes away. Large numbers were shot in hopes that the birds would leave, and a portion removed a short distance to Pointon; but the original roost was never forsaken.—A.E. Payne.
Kilsall, Shifnal.—In a reed-bed.—Daniel Jones.
Albrighton.—At Snowdon Pool, on the Patshull estate—the borders of Shropshire and Staffordshire—on reeds.—F.H. Joynson.
Bridgnorth.—At Tasley, in a covert with osiers.—F.H. Joynson.
Bridgnorth.—At Hilton, five miles north-east, in a plantation. Also at Gatacre Park; Starlings used to resort in thousands to a laurel plantation, which in a few years they destroyed, and then left.—E. Ll. Gatacre.
Madeley.—Three roosts close together were used by large flocks till recently, but are now almost deserted. One was in a covert called Lee Dingle, another an exposed plantation on high ground, and the third a rough field full of high hawthorn bushes.—R.E. Anstice.
Harley, Much Wenlock.—In bushes on a hill.—T.R. Horton.
Ludlow.—Oakley Park, on reeds by the decoy pools.—H. Gray.
Ludlow.—Moor Park. In a small plantation the birds roost in tens of thousands.—J. Palmer.
Wooferton.—In an immense hawthorn hedge twenty to thirty feet high.—J. Palmer.
Many interesting details have been furnished by the various observers, but want of space prevents our giving anything beyond a summary.
In the great majority of cases the roosts have been occupied by the Starlings regularly for upwards of twenty years. In only a few cases have the established roosts been deserted, and then probably the birds have only gone to a neighbouring roost. In no instance has an entirely new roosting-place been started. It will be noticed that the roosts are of three classes—(1) on reeds, (2) on trees or underwoods, (3) on osiers. We shall see later on that the nature of the roost has an important bearing on the duration of its occupancy by the Starlings. Lastly, it will be seen by a reference to a map that the distance between one roost and another varies from less than two miles to about thirteen miles. There are considerable tracts of country from which no reports have been sent in, and it would be safe to assume that there are a few roosts in these districts which are not recorded in the above list. On this ground the average distance of the roosts from one another can scarcely exceed eight miles.
Before quitting this part of the subject a few details may be given regarding some of the roosts.
Mr. W.H. Parry resides at Shawbury, close to the Moreton Corbet roost. He says that there is an enormous pear tree in his orchard, used by the Starlings as an outpost. They alight on it in great masses, so that it quite bends beneath their weight, and, upon their quitting it, the tree rebounds with such force that it continues to oscillate for some time. This and a few other trees in the surrounding fields are only used as outposts; the birds do not roost there, but in the coppice farther on. When alighting on the pear tree the birds generally make a loud chatter, but not always—sometimes there is no noise but the rushing sound of their wings. The ground and hazel underwood in the coppice are covered with the birds' droppings, and the fetid odour arising from these and the massed birds is perceptible at a considerable distance. The number of birds assembling each night in autumn at this roost is enormous, and towards the end of September or early in October it is further increased by flocks from Caynton and other places. The reason for this is curious. Where the roost is situated on a reed-bed, the reeds get so completely broken down in autumn—when they are much more brittle than in summer—that the Starlings cannot get a footing on them. Thus it happens that roosts of this kind are always deserted early in October. At Caynton Mr. Paddock says that when the reeds break down the Starlings resort to a bed of osiers on another part of the pool, and finally desert those when the leaves fall off. Roosts of the other class—on trees and underwoods—are resorted to much longer. Indeed, the one at Moreton Corbet is never quite deserted; a few small flocks resorting to it through the winter and spring, and even in the breeding season.
The general habits of the Starling may be thus described: During summer they scatter in pairs all over the country to breed, except perhaps small flocks of young birds that do not breed. Even now they seem not to lose their gregariousness, for I have often found from twenty to thirty nests within such a limited area as the ruins of Haughmond Abbey. This is probably more apparent than real, and is due to the number of convenient nesting-holes in such localities. The nest is generally placed in some kind of cavity—in a hole in a tree or wall, under the eaves of houses, amongst piles of loose stones, in a rotten tree-stump, &c. Very rarely it is open to the air, and last year I noticed a very queer instance on the Buries, close to my house at Bayston Hill. It was on a large branch of a very tall ash tree close to the trunk, and, as far as I could see from below, was made entirely of sheep's wool! I watched the bird on and off the nest several times, or should never have recognized the lump of wool as a Starling's nest.
Mr. R. Moses writes that for several years in succession two Starlings' nests were to be seen in Shrewsbury, wedged in between two chimney-stacks four inches apart; they rested on nothing, and it is a mystery how the birds began them. Mr. Palmer says he has several times found the nest in ivy against a tree-trunk.
Ordinarily the nest is an untidy mass of hay or straw, lined with a few feathers or bits of wool. The eggs are of a lovely pale blue, sometimes white, and vary greatly in size and proportions. As soon as the young are hatched the parents display intense activity in searching for food to satisfy their enormous appetites. There are generally five or six nests round my house, and I often watch the Starlings from my bedroom window while dressing in the morning. They regularly search every inch of the lawn for worms, insects, and grubs, and never failed to do this during the past dry summer, although, as there were hardly any worm-casts to be seen, the worms had evidently left the surface-soil and retired to the moister earth below; so that the search must have been rather a "forlorn hope." As soon as the Starlings have exhausted the lawn they go farther afield, and they do an immense amount of good by destroying noxious grubs and insects. In reply to a letter of mine on the subject, the Rev. J.B. Meredith writes:—"I agree with you that Starlings are most useful birds. I do not think they affect the earthworm which makes the worm-casts so much as the wireworm; hence their diligent search of your lawn even in the drought. You have evidently never had your cherry trees cleared by them in dozens and in scores as I have every year; and I have also caught them in the act of stealing raspberries, currants, damsons, and ripe pears—watched them gorging at them—though they do not systematically go for these as they do for cherries."
In regard to this matter, the only cherry tree in my garden is a "Morello," and the fruit is too sour for most birds. I have not seen the Starlings attack the other fruits mentioned, but have seen Blackbirds doing so frequently.
Mr. G.H. Paddock relates that his father used to shoot the Starlings round the house at Caynton, Newport; he urged him not to do so on the ground that they were such useful birds in destroying worms, &c, and at last persuaded him to give them a year's trial. As he anticipated, "the difference in the turf was most marked; it was no longer unsightly from worm-expellings, the Starlings hunting it over first thing every morning." Since then they have been protected; an empty oyster-barrel which Mr. Paddock put up for them in a tree was adopted for a nesting-place by a pair of Starlings the very next morning. Under date Dec. 9th, 1899, Mr. Paddock adds;—"During this summer the whole of my choice carnations were attacked by wireworms, and I noticed Starlings continually amongst the plants. This appears to bear out Mr. Meredith's suggestion." Dr. Sankey says:—"Starlings feed greatly on animal food; those that I dissected some time back had their crops full of caterpillars," and they pick them off oak trees when infested. The stomachs of some that were killed at Shawbury during frosty weather in December were found to contain spurts from wheat, as well as spurting wheat-grains, and a few small weed-seeds. The damage done to one wheat-field necessitated its being resown. On the other hand, Mr. Beckwith found that no bird checked the ravages of the Agrotis moth so effectually as the Starling.
To return to our subject. As soon as the young are able to fly the Starlings go out every morning to feed, keeping together in family parties, and particularly frequenting meadows where sheep and cattle are grazing, to pick up the insects disturbed by their feet. They return each night to the nest to roost. The young grow so rapidly, however, that soon there is not room for them in the nest. In this emergency some other sleeping-place has to be found, and what place would so naturally recur to the minds of the parent birds as the spot where they roosted in the previous autumn? The parents and children start off together, and on the way fall in with another little family party bent on the same errand; then another and another, till, by the time the tryst is reached, the flock numbers several hundreds. Perhaps for the first few evenings the total assemblage will not be very large, but as successive families realize the necessity of quitting their nesting-places the congress increases night by night. Very few sights in the bird-world are so impressive as one of these great gatherings of the clans. About an hour before sunset the first flocks begin to arrive at the appointed place. These do not settle down at once, but continue to fly around; soon other flocks arrive in quick succession from all points of the compass, till the heavens are literally darkened by the cloudy masses of birds. They now proceed to execute in the air a series of complicated evolutions, like regiments of soldiers on a review day—charging forwards, wheeling to right and left, crossing and recrossing over and under, converging and diverging, coalescing and separating, till at last, just after sunset, as if by one consent, the whole body of birds descends like an avalanche, with a mighty rushing sound of wings, and covers every tree, shrub, and reed with a living freight so heavy that they bend almost to the earth beneath their burden. Now ensues a perfect babel of chatter, which continues for several minutes, till the last "good nights" have been said, and darkness and silence descend on the scene. The effect of any sudden sound, such as the stroke of an oar falling flat on the water, is startling. Instantly the thousands of Starlings rise into the air uttering cries of alarm, with much fluttering of wings, only to resettle the next minute, amid congratulatory murmurs of satisfaction, till silence is again restored.
Not always, however, is the scene thus peaceful. If there is a Sparrowhawk in the vicinity that has not fallen a victim to the keeper's gun—alas, how few do escape—it can hardly fail to discover such a happy hunting-ground as this. Two of my correspondents mention that Sparrowhawks have been seen haunting the roosts, and occasionally dashing into the throng to seize a Starling, its companions fleeing in every direction with mournful terror-stricken screams.
Midnight. All quiet.
Morning dawns. The Starlings begin to wake and twitter, and preen their feathers. Before the sun is well up they are off; scattered all over the country to their daily avocation of picking up their food. Now, however, instead of keeping together in families, they go about in small parties, and this habit they retain throughout the remainder of the year.
We now approach the most difficult part of our subject—the movements of Starlings between the middle of November (when the big roosts are nearly deserted) and the following spring, when they return to their nesting-places. It would only weary the reader to state all the little details upon which the following conclusions are based, so I will here only indicate briefly what I believe to be the actual facts. In order to make the matter clear, it will facilitate matters if we divide our native Starlings into three main groups: —
- (1) Starlings that migrate.
(2) Starlings in towns.
(3) Starlings in the country.
Anyone who observes our local birds must notice that the number of Starlings in any given neighbourhood suffers a great and sudden diminution some time in late autumn, and there is pretty good evidence that this is caused by emigration. The Rev. R.T. Kempthorne, who lived formerly in Cornwall, tells me that in that county the Starling is only a winter visitor, and rarely, if ever, breeds there. Mr. Howard Saunders, in his 'Manual,' says:—"Large flocks arrive on our east coasts in autumn, at which season there is a marked migration westward, localities in the interior of this country which have been frequented during the summer being then almost deserted, while great numbers visit the south of Ireland.... Throughout the greater part of the Mediterranean basin it is only a cold weather visitor, although at that season it occurs in almost incredible numbers." Towards the end of autumn enormous flocks of Starlings and Peewits appear on our western coasts, particularly in Merionethshire, Pembrokeshire, and Cornwall. We may conclude, therefore, that a large proportion of our inland Starlings leave us then, and go westwards. In reply to a letter of mine, Mr. Howard Saunders writes that the Starlings in the north of Europe, where in winter the ground is as hard as iron, go to the south.
(2) Starlings in towns, during winter, assimilate in their habits to Sparrows. They are hardly at all gregarious, but live on housetops, feeding on anything that falls in their way. It rarely happens that more than two or four are seen together, and I fancy that these are paired birds returning to their old nesting-places as a kind of head-quarters whence to forage around.
(3) Starlings in the country, during winter, behave quite differently; they go about in small flocks, sometimes alone, but more often in company with other birds that frequent fields, especially Rooks and Peewits. Around Shrewsbury, Peewits are very numerous, and it seems to me that there exists some bond of sympathy between them and Starlings, for we rarely see a flock of Peewits without its attendant train of Starlings. If the Peewits move into the next field, the Starlings do the same; while, if the former continue to wheel about in the air for some time, the Starlings wait till they settle, and then rejoin them. In severe weather Peewits leave the inland meadows and descend to the coasts in search of food, On Dec. 11th, 1899, a hard frost began. Next day all our local Peewits disappeared: so did the flocks of Starlings. There were no Peewits to be seen after that date, nor any Starlings (except pairs about houses) till Jan. 4th, when both re-appeared in flocks on the meadows near Shrewsbury.
Whether each group of Starlings attaches itself to a particular group of Peewits or Rooks, we have no means of knowing, but it is hardly likely, as the size of the flocks varies greatly from day to day. The reasons why these different birds associate together are probably:—
(1) That they are similar in their tastes as regards food.
(2) That they are all very wary birds, and associate for mutual protection.
Parenthetically, we may remark that the Starling is remarkable for unfailing good temper—he never quarrels with his company, nor is he treated as an intruder.
At night the Starlings that have kept company with the Rooks and Peewits all day retire to an ivy-clad tree or wall to roost. They may then be found occasionally in numbers up to a hundred or two; but these are only accidental gatherings—very different in character to the big roosts before-mentioned—and the birds do not travel any distance from their feeding-ground; they merely go to roost in the nearest convenient place.
The following incident evinces the existence of a strong spirit of comradeship amongst Starlings. Mr. D.H. Meares shot a Starling on the ground out of a flock at about eighty yards distance, when the whole flock rose and hovered round their companion, swaying up and down in the air over it in a triangular formation; some even tried to lift it; this continued for several minutes.
Reverting for a moment to the subject of "Roosts," we noticed, early in this paper, that the average distance between one roost and another was not more than eight miles, so that the radius of the area appropriated to each would be four miles. If we treat the area as a square it would contain sixty-four square miles. I believe that if all the roosts were recorded, we should find that this estimate is over the mark, and that the relative area is really much smaller. Anyone who has witnessed, as I have, the enormous multitudes of birds that assemble at some of the roosts will hardly conceive it possible that they are natives only of the limited area surrounding the roost, and we can only conclude that the true natives of the district receive additional numbers that migrate thither from outside districts or even from the Continent.
I will conclude with a statement which may perhaps be received with incredulity. Nearly all ornithological writers say that Starlings breed two, and occasionally three times a year. Careful observation has convinced me that a very large proportion of Starlings—perhaps one-half—rear only one brood in the year; many rear two broods. I have never known three broods, and there are some Starlings that do not breed at all. Mr. G.W. Murdoch, Natural History Editor of the 'Yorkshire Weekly Post,' writes in reply to a query on this point:—"In Hants Starlings very often breed twice a year; I never knew them do so in Scotland. I am of opinion that a good many Starlings never breed at all, but for what cause I know not. That is also the opinion of my friend the Rev. H.A. Macpherson, M.A., author of 'The Fauna of Lakeland.'" Mr. E.S. Cobbold writes in April, 1899:—"Why are the Starlings congregating in flocks now? Hundreds fly over Stretton from the south-east at 5 or 6 p.m. to roost, I think, in a Scotch fir-plantation near; I have seen them three nights in succession, and on April 3rd I saw rather large flocks down by Craven Arms feeding together." He adds that at the very time when he saw the flocks flying overhead, the Starlings that were breeding about his house were busy looking after their nests or young, and did not take any notice of the others, much less offer to fly off after them. "Is it," he concludes, "the autumn habit not yet abandoned? I am inclined to think not, for I remember in previous years noticing them early in summer, when I supposed they had done breeding."
A simple and probable explanation of the phenomenon is this:—When Starlings rear two broods in the year, the second brood would be younger than the first by some two months or so. When the breeding season comes round in the following spring, the second broods are not sufficiently adult to breed, and, not having any duties to call them elsewhere, they naturally continue to resort at night to the old familiar roost. This supposition also accounts for the presence of a small number of birds at the roost, even during the breeding season—a fact alluded to at the end of the description of the roost at Moreton Corbet.
With reference to the migrations of the Starlings that leave us, we seldom witness the actual departure, and still more seldom see their return; but this is not singular—we may say the same of all inland migrations. On the coasts the departures and arrivals are much more evident. Mr. D.H. Meares saw, on one occasion, several thousand Starlings roosting on the ground in a ploughed field close to Shawbury village; he supposed that they were preparing for a night flight. In returning to their inland quarters in spring, the birds arrive on our coasts in large numbers, but, after resting awhile, they continue their flight in such small bodies that they are not noticed.
The Starlings which remain here through the winter, in company with Peewits and Rooks, exhibit a tendency to break up into gradually smaller and smaller parties. Towards the end of February many pairs are to be found at their old breeding haunts. At this period the Peewits still keep together in large flocks, not pairing off till March; by that time their attendant Starlings have deserted them.
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- See also: note on p. 479 (Wikisource ed.).