Tuesday 22 January 2019

Country Matters: Cork starlings joined in bloody 'battell'

WONDERFUL: The pamphlet from 1622 tells of the ‘battell’
WONDERFUL: The pamphlet from 1622 tells of the ‘battell’

Joe Kennedy

Great numbers of starlings landed on a green field near woodland in Ballywilliam, Co Wexford, forming a black mass on the ground.

There is a photograph in the current issue of Wings, the glossy journal of BirdWatch Ireland, the nature charity.

The birds did not remain long on the ground and went up to roost in the nearby trees, no doubt having enjoyed an impromptu supper.

Seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of starlings 'grounded' before roosting may be rare - but it is not unusual, according to Chris Feare, a UK naturalist who has identified four different behaviour phases of starlings 'at ease'.

The first of these is a pre-roosting assembly, such as that seen at Ballywilliam; the second is as they enter the roost and jostle for favoured places, the third is further communal movement therein, and the last is as the birds head out as the new day dawns.

Starlings do not necessarily go to sleep in roosts; they rest there, feel safe from predators and get protection from the elements. The birds also have day-time roosts where they will sing and chatter, preen and just sit. Some, indeed, may sleep!

And what of those breathtaking aerial displays, 'murmurations', entrancing and annually photographed as if the great swirls of black figures against the evening skies were waltzing to a heavenly rhythm?

The reason for these air shows are obscure, writes the naturalist Peter Holden (in RSPB Birds, Their Hidden World) but it "certainly helps draw in all the starlings in the area to share the roost site".

We should be grateful such mass gatherings do not erupt into wholesale slaughter as happened over Cork in the 17th Century when thousands of birds took part in a bloody aerial battle, fought over several days!

Ballads were composed and woodcuts engraved about the 'Battell of the Stares'.

The great starling fight, which briefly relocated to London before returning, was remarkable. Two 'murmurations' separately gathered over the Lee for several days, sending emissary groups back and forth until all hell broke loose on October 12, 1621 and "trembling feare and terror brought/To all who saw the battell fought".

A garland went: "With loud and chattering cryes each company 'gainst the other flyes/ With bloody beaks, remorseless still/Their feathered foes to maime or kill/Where while this battell did remain/Their bodies fell like drops of raine".

A year later Cork city was burned to the ground, the starling battle seen as a portent, one pamphleteer writing: "Cork was first warned and then destroyed for her sins… with fyre from heaven."

Scientific sources say animal and bird fights usually occur over territory, mates, food and shelter. It is called intraspecific aggression, where they attack their own species. We don't want any recurrence of the starling debacle, however, their numbers having fallen considerably in urban areas. 'Murmurations' are welcomed annually with awe and admiration.

Sunday Independent

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