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Country Matters: Waltzing whistlers swirl in the skies

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AERIAL DISPLAYS: Breathtaking murmuration of starlings fill the sky

AERIAL DISPLAYS: Breathtaking murmuration of starlings fill the sky

AERIAL DISPLAYS: Breathtaking murmuration of starlings fill the sky

In towns and suburban estates, starlings (sturnus vulgaris) may now be as scarce as hen's teeth. However, this wasn't always the case. Within recent memory, there would have been a group of garden foragers outside the kitchen door in the mornings.

An estimated 60pc decline in numbers over the past 20 years has prompted fears of a wipe-out.

But those survivors of changing building design and relentless competition from hungry herring gulls seem to have found some rest in moving to the countryside, though they are now on the Amber List of BirdWatch Ireland's endangered species.

To see what is called a 'murmuration', or mass flight demonstration, of the birds over green fields is an uplifting experience.

Thousands gather to swing and sway in great undulating waves in the evening before suddenly dropping out of sight to settle for the night.

This appears to be an annual phenomenon, especially in the Midlands, and last week a Meath reader forwarded an image on YouTube of a great swirling mass over Nobber in that county.

These birds had gathered at the beginning of roosting behaviour, which starts in green fields before taking to the skies to eventually fall, as an enchanted waltz ends, to tree-lines and reed beds to perch.

They don't fall asleep but begin endless chattering and whistling and jockeying for best positions. As dawn breaks, they leave in waves, having rested and found safety from predators.

They have day roosts where they will chatter and sing, preen and just sit - and perhaps catch 40 winks.

Those breathtaking aerial displays draw in birds from over a wide area - sometimes up to 20km away - and when all the twisting and turning is finished, there is a tumble, en masse, into bushes and trees.

Starlings never stop whistling, gurgling and communicating. They are nature's natural mimics, imitating other bird species, barking dogs, mewing cats, and the myriad drifting noises of everyday life such as doorbells and mobile phones, tunes playing on the radio.

Once they were prized as pets and called 'poor men's parrots'. They were trained to talk in Ancient Rome and Pliny the Younger wrote that they could speak Latin and Greek phrases.

Centuries later, Shakespeare had Hotspur saying in Henry IV Part One: "I'll have a starling taught to speak nothing but Mortimer."

David Rottenberg, in Why Birds Sing, tells of Mozart being startled when his pet starling whistled a bar of his latest piano concerto in G Major, K453, modifying the melody from G Natural to G Sharp.

The bird continues to startle. In US scientific tests, one bird making a phone pips sound asked: "Do you have a toll-free number?" Another picked up the melody of Swanee River.

It would be intriguing to wonder if the tune accompanied those breathtaking aerial displays.

Or perhaps over the Irish Midlands, The Fields of Athenry might become a heavenly waltz from a great swirl of black against the evening skies?

Sunday Independent