ON STARLINGS, MURMURATIONS, & ABERYSTWYTH
Mozart v Iggy Pop
Mozart had a father called Leopold. He was a composer and musician in his own right, but when he realized how talented his little Mozart was, Leopold decided to dedicate his life to supporting his son’s talent.
When his father died, Mozart didn’t go to his funeral.
Mozart had a pet starling. It was part of the Mozart family household for 3 years.
When his starling died, just two months after his father had died, Mozart organized a funeral procession for the little bird “in which everyone who could sing had to join in, heavily veiled -- made a sort of requiem, epitaph in verse.”
It is also said that the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 453 was inspired by his starling’s song.
Iggy Pop doesn’t have a starling. But he has a cockatoo called BiggyPop. BiggyPop is well and alive and has an Instagram account and 84,000 Instagram followers.
I think that, were Mozart alive today, Mozart’s starling would also have an Instagram account. He’d probably have more than 84,000 followers. But we will never know.
Here rests a bird called Starling,
A foolish little Darling.
He was still in his prime
When he ran out of time,
And my sweet little friend
Came to a bitter end,
Creating a terrible smart
Deep in my heart.
Gentle Reader! Shed a tear,
For he was dear,
Sometimes a bit too jolly
And, at times, quite folly,
I bet he is now up on high
Praising my friendship to the sky,
Which I render
For when he took his sudden leave,
Which brought to me such grief,
He was not thinking of the man
Who writes and rhymes as no one can.
Mozart, June 4, 1787.
The Vulgar Starling - Sturnus Vulgaris
Parrots make a lot of noise. Starlings can make even more noise. In fact, it's a little know fact that they are brilliant mimics of sounds. Better even than parrots. They can imitate the songs and calls of other birds, and mechanical sounds.
And that’s not all, starlings are very complicated social little birds. For example, when starlings begin “thinking” about mating in Spring, they will consider ins and outs of:
1) Parental Care: Is it better, the male starling asks himself every spring, to be monogynous or polygynous?
2) Differential Allocation: How many steroid hormones, the female starling asks herself, should I allocate to my eggs this year?
The answer will depend on her choice of partner for the year:
If her partner is polygynous, she will allocate a level that will make her eggs hatch at different times. This means that, what with an absent father, she will have more time to find food for her hungry baby starlings.
If, on the other hand, her partner is monogynous, which means that she will have help in feeding her babies, then she will allocate a level of hormones that will see her eggs hatch at more or less the same time.
3) and last but not least (but let’s be honest, this is just a hypothesis), the “Sexy Son hypothesis”:
Scientists who have studied the humble starling very carefully think that it is possible that a female will choose a polygynous partner because polygany is a marker of a virile, successful male, and mating with a polygamous partner will mean that his genes will be passed on to the son baby starlings. Talk about complicated!
Pink is for Girls and Blue is for Boys?
Anyway, there are about 118 species of starlings. The common starling is called Sturnus Vulgaris. Ie: the Common Starling.
From afar it is just a little black bird. But from close up, and especially in summer, it has stunning iridescent feathers which are speckled with little stars. Like a clear, Welsh night sky.
During the breeding season (April onwards), adult starling bills become more yellow and their plumage develops different colour bases depending on their sex; in males there is a base of blue and in females, guess what? Pink
Spring and Summer
In the spring and summer starling live in small colonies. They will feed together, and in April, when it is time to think about babies, the male starling will begin by making a nest in a hole. Usually a tree hole. Once he is done, he will perch by his newly built nest, and he will sing his little heart out until he attracts a female. She will then finish off the nest with some "soft furnishings"; she will line it with mosses, and grasses and feathers, just to make it nice and soft for her babies.
Then she will lay her eggs (they are a beautiful light blue) and in 12 days, hey presto, the hatching begins. The babies will take about 3 weeks to fledge, and even once they've fledged, the parent starlings will continue to feed their babies for about a week.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), starlings are widely spread throughout the UK. But due to farming practices there has been a startling decline in numbers since the 1970’s. For example, according to the Carmarthenshire report on wild bird numbers, between 1995
to 2016 there was a 72% decline in starling numbers. This may be because modern grassland management regimes of farmers lead to a reduction in invertebrates, and there simply isn’t enough food to feed baby starlings. Sadly, starlings are not alone in suffering from modern agricultural practices. There is an overall worrying decline in just about all species of previously commonly seen birds. You can read about it here: https://www.carmarthenshire.gov.wales/media/1217465/birds-priority-species-in-carms.pdf
So that’s probably why I’ve never seen a starling in our Welsh garden.
Then last week I saw thousands. Literally, thousands, of starlings. But that’s because it's winter, and winter is the starlings’ time to shine; In winter small colonies of starlings decide to join up with other starling colonies in their winter roosts. Because there is safety, and warmth, in numbers. They will come from up to 20 km afar, and some colonies even migrate from the North.
Oh to Murmurate like a Starling
And then they do something so spectacular that people travel far and wide travel to the starling roosts to watch. This spectacular thing that they do is that they perform a dance of such complexity, and harmony, and beauty, that we humans have had to invent a new word to describe that dance. And that word is “murmuration”. So starlings don’t dance, they murmurate, and they don’t put on a ballet, they put on a murmuration. Which really is a starling dusk ballet in the skies so beautiful and awesome that we humans travel from far and wide to watch.
You can imagine how, during the day, they are out, in the middle of the countryside, in the fields, rehearsing their moves, over and over and over again, so that when they all get together for their dusk finale not one single starling will be out of step. And then, when the sun begins to dip towards the horizon, the call goes out, and they all head back, in their little colonies, to the winter roost.
And as they meet up with thousands of their friends above their roost, like as if in a swarm, they begin their dance, up in the high dusky skies; they swirl and twirl and pirouette in unison, never once bumping into each other, while the wingless humans stare, mouths agape, at this most beautiful and elegant of dances.
Then, when the performance is over, they peel off, one by one, and dive down under the pier, or into the reed beds, to spend the last minutes of daylight analyzing, turn by turn, that evening’s performance.
Blame it on Shakespeare. Actually, no, blame it on Eugene!
There are approximately 200 million starlings in North America. Each one of that 200 million is a descendant of 100 starlings released in 1890 and 1891 in Central Park, New York, by Eugene Schieffelin. Eugene was a member of the Acclimation Society of North America. The Acclimation Society had the brilliant (!) idea of introducing every bird species ever mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare to North America. So now these "invasive" birds are thought of as pests by most North Americans.
Back here in the UK many farmers also think of starlings as pests. That's because starlings like to feel in flocks and when they do feed, they feed on invertebrates in the soil, and so can cause havoc on freshly sown fields. But as explained above, due to agricultural practices their numbers are now on the decline. So now the starlings need our love, and tolerance, and help.
If you want to help stop the decrease in their numbers don’t use poisonous chemicals on your soil. Don’t use weed killers. Because these don’t just kill weeds, they kill everything in the soil, including invertebrates like earthworms and leatherjackets and all other little creatures.
Let the earth thrive.
Or make (https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/give-nature-a-home-in-your-garden/garden-activities/createacosystarlinghome/) or buy, some starling nesting boxes.
And then watch your starlings thrive.
There are quite a few famous starling winter roosts in the UK.
You can find details about all of them here:
One of the most spectacular winter roosts is in one of the most spectacular of settings, the Aberystwith Pier.
Aberystwith was once known as the Biarritz of Wales; the Victorians flocked to this Welsh Biarritz when the Aberystwith railway opened in the 1860’s. Then Aberyswith university college opened in 1872 and young people also flocked in. We don't know when the starlings started flocking in to use the wonderful old pier as a roosting nest. But they come back every year, to revisit their old haunts. Aberystwith is now mostly a university town. So when young people fill the town at the start of term it takes on a youthful alive rhythm unlike any other remote Welsh town. And if the name rings a bell, it was recently made a little bit more famous by The Crown, Season 3. (It’s only fitting, after all, that the Prince of Wales should have learned a bit of Welsh.)
Aberystwyth is on the west coast of Wales. When the rain and wind whip through it can be a truly “bracing” seaside town. But on a cold winter’s evening, when the skies are clear, nothing can beat the marriage of a sun setting over the Irish Sea, with the spectacle of thousands of murmurating starlings.
So the best time to go is on a clear cloudless winter crisp day between December and the end of February. Though some say that January is the best month.
If you can, go in the early afternoon so that you can take time to walk up Constitution Hill, or to see the Arts Centre, before you knuckle down for a late lunch and a pint, before heading out onto the Pier.
One of the best places to lunch is The Glengower. It’s a pub & hotel that is right on the promenade. It’s got incredible views out over the Irish Sea and over to the old Pier. It’s got a roaring fire, it’s got an incredible selection of whiskeys, and it’s got fish & chips (with superb tartare sauce) to die for. And you can bring your four legged besties with you. Those of the canine variety, anyway.
At The Glengower you can warm up your cockles, fill up your bellies, then wrap up (gloves hats and scarves will all be required) before heading out to the Pier, which is about a 5 minute walk away, just before dusk (at about 4pm), to watch the Starling Spectacular begin.
We have it on good authority that, afterwards, the cocktails at The Libertine are “lovely”.
TO FIND OUT MORE:
Watch Lynda Haupt talk about her book about Mozart’s starling, and about her own pet starling, Carmen, here:
Watch some videos of starling murmurations:
Check out some more of our photos and a video on ur Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/veronika23/albums/72157712604146587/with/49324014183/