Look at this bird. OK, it’s not the greatest photo, but I grabbed it quickly as the starling perched on the building across the road from my house one sunny morning.
It set me thinking. Firstly, a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to take the snap, because starlings were so widespread and numerous. The councils of various British cities considered all sorts of drastic action to minimize the damage caused by huge, incontinent roosts of the birds all over historic buildings. When I went to university in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for example, in 1988, you could watch them gathering at dusk each day, to settle on the ledges and sills of the Georgian crescents sweeping down to the river.
In the meantime, though, in common with another previously ubiquitous species, the house sparrow, they’ve suffered a steep and worrying decline. All sorts of reasons for this are suggested, but the main causes seem to be a lack of nesting sites, as the older buildings they favour get replaced or renovated, and lack of insect food later in the summer, which has badly hit second and third broods.
Having said all that, neither species is rare. Starlings still occur all over the British Isles, with an estimated 800,000 breeding territories, and numbers are boosted in winter by the arrival of millions of migrants from Scandinavia and central and eastern Europe. There are an estimated 5.3 million breeding pairs of house sparrows, too. In both cases, while numbers have dropped in city centres, things are a little more rosy in the suburbs, villages, and open countryside.
Which brings me to my second point. I’m also as guilty as the next birder of ignoring certain, more commo species much of the time, and until recently, starlings have been among those.
But look at them! Seriously—stop for a moment, and take a long, hard look at them. OK, so they’ll never win any awards for elegance—their flight silhouette is compact and functional, rather than sleek and dashing, and their gait is akin to that of someone attempting to hurry through a crowded shopping mall while wearing a straitjacket.
The colours and markings more than make up for all that. Seen close up, in winter, it’s hard to know where to start. The way their apparent coal blackness disintegrates into a glorious swirl of petrol-on-water blues and greens and purples as you get closer and the light catches them? The constellations of stars radiating out from just below the bill? If this were a species that turned up here only once in a blue moon, as a vagrant on the East Coast, we’d go running to see it and photograph it and sketch it without a second thought. As it is, even now when it’s far less common than previously, we rarely give it a second glance, unless it’s to complain about its aggressive behaviour at the garden feeders.
The same could be said of the house sparrow. If they lack the starling’s beauty, they’re still neat, attractive little birds, and every bit as full of character as the blue tits and goldfinches that are the poster boys and girls of the bird food companies.
Both species are deeply ingrained in our culture, yet strangely out of focus. That is, they’re always there, but they’re rarely the centre of attention, or they’re co-opted as metaphors, or they form part of a crowd scene. The reason, of course, is that they’ve always been so common. Who needed to describe something that could be seen without effort?
When the Venerable Bede was writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the early 8th century, for example, he used sparrows (and from the setting, house sparrows) in a story about the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity.
King Edwin is told by Coifi, his counsellor: “The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”
It’s a moving passage, and Bede chose the homeliest, most familiar of species to help ground his theological thought in the flesh and blood world, but it’s entirely incidental to the main thrust of the writing.
Starlings, on the other hand, crop up as the answer to an Anglo-Saxon riddle, in the guise in which they’re probably most familiar to modern Britons: as part of a swirling, swooping pre-roost flock, or murmuration. These gatherings, in which the birds seem to abandon all individual consciousness to a larger hive mind, have been inspiring poets and other writers ever since those days.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote this about seeing such a flock in the winter of 1799: “Starlings in vast flights drove along like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Elipse & Oblong – now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concaved Semicircle – & still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening!”
He’s spot-on, but wonderful as such murmurations are, and as easy as it is to find accounts of them right the way through the annals of English literature, isn’t it time to give the starling, and the house sparrow, a bit of individual attention? For one thing, we never know when it might be too late. For another, even a single one of either of them is worth ten minutes of anyone’s day.
About the Author
Matt is the editor of Bird Watching Magazine (UK), and the writer of three collections of poetry - Troy Town (Arrowhead Press, 2008), hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (Nine Arches Press, 2010) and The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches, 2013). He lives near Leicester, England, and blogs at http://polyolbion.blogspot.co.uk