I was walking in town the other day watching the swallows that are slowly returning to the skies above our towns and homes. While they haven’t brought the weather with them their singing is still a joyous sign that spring is on is way. Just as I was about to cross the road I was stopped by a gentleman who, through half-closed eyes, wanted to know ‘where they had gone to’ - he was of course referring to the starlings. He explained that each evening the starlings gather on the TV aerials of the houses in his neighbourhood and if only the drivers would turn of their radios and the pedestrians unplug their earphones, they would be treated to nature’s choir singing high above their heads. Over the last few weeks he had noticed that they had disappeared and even though they made a bit of a mess of his car and washing, he wouldn’t want anything to happen to them. I explained that at this time of year the birds are breaking up into pairs to raise their families and the large flocks won’t reform until winter. With a satisfied look he said that marriage puts a stop to all singing and quickly disappears across the street!
Starlings are very common birds in urban areas but are still plentiful in the countryside. One of the main benefits of city living is the wide range of nesting locations. Traditionally they would have nested in holes in trees but gaps in buildings and houses are ideal for building nests. They will also use nest boxes and these are like mini blocks of flats and each bird has its own room. One to two broods are raised each year and they feed upon berries, seeds and insects.
They are usually glimpsed as black flecks weaving fantastic shapes in the dying evening sky. These flocks can reach massive numbers and a quarter of a million birds were recorded a few years ago in Tipperary. These might not all be Irish birds as each winter we play host to between five and six million birds from Germany, Poland and Russia. A wise birdwatcher once told me to all ways pack an umbrella when watching starlings - just as some pets are not house trained these birds are definitely not city trained. People once believed that when starlings gathered together it was a sign of cold weather.
They are uncommon visitors to my garden and have yet to grace my roof with their song. I have never seen them on the seed or nut feeders (has any reader?) and they will only take food that has been scattered on the road in front of my house. When seen close up they are a beautiful iridescent colour that can sparkle in the sunlight. They feed in noisy groups and can be surprisingly difficult to watch as only in the shortest turf do their heads appear above the grass. Starlings will often perch on ESB wires and can sometimes be spotted taking a bath in a puddle.
I was recently asked should we feed birds throughout the year. It was once believed that the parents would feed the nuts to their young causing them harm. Recent study has shown that all year round feeding has many benefits for birds. A few years ago I watched a pair of starlings feeding their chicks in a nest located under the eve of a house. They returned every few minuets with a juicy caterpillar or insect. As any parent knows raising young kids is exhausting. The parents regularly pop over to the nearest feeder, have a quick energy snack and then go back to collecting food for their young. In the hour I was observing they never brought a peanut near the nest. Because temperatures are higher keep your feeding station clean and if possible move it around your garden to prevent a build up of harmful bacteria.
When I worked on roofs and chimneys, starlings were our constant companion and I remember one brave parent nesting in a hole under the eve. It soon grew accustomed to our loud voices and noise and would cautiously edge along the gutter carrying food for its hungry young. When we arrived in one morning there were three little fledglings perched on the ridge and building up courage to explore their strange new world. We needed scaffolding and ladders to enter their world, they a step into the unknown and the whole town was theirs.
Albert Nolan is an environmentalist and wildflife enthusiast from Tipperary Town. He is involved in the Tidy Towns initiative there and also gives nature walks and talks to local schools. His main interests are in birds and moths. You can email Albert with any wildlife related queries or suggestions on firstname.lastname@example.org