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Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Les étourneaux

Home to roost

During the next few months an amazing natural spectacle can be seen as millions of starlings take to the skies in fluid, fast-moving flocks. Bill Oddie is enthralled

* Interview by Amy Fleming
* The Guardian
* Wednesday November 7 2007

A large flock of starlings fly over a park at sunset seaking an area to land for the evening, in Algiers. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty images

At this time of year, starlings form vast flocks for the winter [not just in this country, but in places such as Algeria and the United States]. Each night before they go down to roost, they swoop around the skies in spectacular formations. Quite why or how they move together so fluidly, making such specific shapes, remains a mystery to us.

The reasons why they form flocks, however, are very simple. First, there is safety in numbers. Any hungry bird of prey wouldn't know which starling to go for in such a vast, fast-moving flock. Some flocks have been estimated to contain 2 million birds. Second, it's always warmer in a group, be you a human, a penguin or a starling. The third reason is not conclusively proven, but it is generally felt that there is some sort of communication going on. I'm not saying it's a language but, in starling terms, they get together in the evenings and say things like: "Well, we've found a good feeding area down the road there." It took years to figure out the "waggle dance" that bees use to indicate the best feeding sites and this could be similar.

The flocks start forming around now, in the autumn, and stay together right through to spring when the birds go off - some abroad, some not - to breed. In Britain, we get a huge influx of starlings from Russia and northern Europe; they come here to roost in the relative warmth. At this time of year on the east coast, you can see them still arriving.

We imagine they're sleeping most of the time when roosting - conserving energy overnight. The BBC is currently filming inside a roost on the Somerset levels to work out whether the birds go straight to sleep or stay up chatting and exchanging news.

The spots where you can watch the spectacular flocks in the UK are quite well known and you don't have to be a naturalist to spot them. The Somerset levels, Brighton's crumbling West Pier, and the flock I filmed a few years ago near Slimbridge on the river Severn, are good places to try but, be warned, while starlings usually stay in the same area throughout winter, they do move, so you'll have to be patient. After a while, they tend to flatten the reeds or trees they roost in, so they'll seek out fresh vegetation nearby. They tend to roost in woods, or mostly old, but sometimes new, buildings. They used to be rife in cities but local councils got rid of them.

They're not really pests but some people say, "Ooh, we don't want starlings in our gardens," because they think they chase away the other birds. This isn't true. There's just a natural pecking order, and starlings are survivors.

The best time to catch the spectacular flocking is at the starlings' bedtime - get there an hour before it gets dark. The flocks will build and build in the late afternoon and the final moments of dusk are when it looks like they're going down a plug hole, when they descend to roost.

Merci, Jane, pour les rappels saisonniers des spectacles à l'affiche. Les étourneaux, quand ils évoluent en vastes nuages, sont une merveille. Ces rassemblements en vol s'appellent des "murmurations". C'est pas beau, ça ? Et ce n'est pas difficile de trouver un dortoir d'étourneaux : il suffit bien souvent de lever les yeux environ une demi-heure avant le coucher du soleil pour repérer les troupes qui, petit à petit, se dirigent vers les dortoirs. Ceux-ci sont souvent dans les roselières, ou bien dans les bois et bosquets. Faites-vous plaisir. Envoûtement assuré.

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