Tuesday 27 September 2016

Murmurs of poor men's parrots

Joe Kennedy

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

'Starlings never stop gossiping. They are nature's natural mimics, imitating other birds, barking dogs, phone ring tones and the myriad drifting noises of humanity'
'Starlings never stop gossiping. They are nature's natural mimics, imitating other birds, barking dogs, phone ring tones and the myriad drifting noises of humanity'

A wren makes its way stealthily through wild rose bush briars seeking insects. It keeps moving, gripping a foothold here and there, along the wildness of an old wall.

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There is another wren there also, I notice, a great surprise in that this place had been deserted by birds, even the long resident blue tits.

The wrens were engrossed in their own tiny tasks, purposefully moving along, pristine-feathered, reclusive in leaf cover, to filter away in the afternoon sunshine.

In another part of the country there are thousands of birds displaying their lives for all to witness, swaying and waltzing in the evening skies, celebrating life's joys not unlike a great shoal of herring swirling along on a drifting current.

All were to be seen in an online video in the Irish Independent on Tuesday - and later that day on the US site Irish Central headed: 'Irish dance teacher in Leitrim captures magic of birds in murmuration'.

This footage was captured near Carrick-on-Shannon by dance teacher Edwina Guckian as she was leaving the Sean-nos ar an t-Sionann dancing club. "The birds were doing their own dance for us," she said. The video is complimented by music from Laoise Kelly from Achill in Co Mayo.

These Leitrim starlings (sturnus vulgaris) have been gathering each evening from 8pm to 10pm in a "timetabled air show" of one of the most delightful phenomena of the world of birds.

Starlings come together in these great displays for self-protection from predators such as sparrow-hawks and kestrels, before settling into roosts. To a lesser extent, groups of smaller birds such as tree sparrows and wagtails used do the same before their numbers crashed.

There are records of murmurations, and of vaster flocks, of this sprightly bird going back hundreds of years. Once, after a great swirling over London, so many settled on Westminster that they stopped the hands on Big Ben.

Looking at pictures of great flocks of the past, with estimates of astonishing numbers gathered in roosts, it is difficult to realise that their continued survival - they are amber-listed as of medium conservation concern by BirdWatch Ireland - seems precarious.

Numbers, especially in urban areas, have plummeted. Birds searching streets for scraps of food, flitting among gulls in public parks, descending on games pitches at half-time to poke though upturned mud, are no longer as common a sight as once they were.

Suddenly, they don't seem to be around, except in the peace of the countryside.

In communal roosts, sharing body heat is vital, as is the endless chattering, gurgling and whistling of communication. Starlings never stop gossiping. They are nature's natural mimics, imitating other birds, barking dogs, phone ring tones and the myriad drifting noises of humanity.

They were once prized as domestic pets, 'poor man's parrots' taught snatches of song, whistling and swearing, and sold at markets. This trade fell away more than 100 years ago. Leitrim's flocking birds are a bold display of survival. May the murmurations go on. The word, I have found, turns up in Sports and Pastimes of England (1801), originally appearing in a 15th century Book of Saint Albans of lists of "proper terms".

Sunday Independent

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