8am on a gloriously bright January morning. The storm last night has washed the sky clean of cloud and the light is strong and clear, purged of dust. I should be getting ready for work but instead I’m lying up against my pillows, watching the starlings on the television aerials opposite.
It’s just hit me that these black shapes on the aerials are my first ‘nature encounter’ of the day. And that it’s up to me to make the most of these crumbs of nature connection, which are painfully few in a day spent mainly under strip lighting in an office with no windows.
Nature deficit disorder
I used to work outdoors a lot as an environmental educator, working out of wonderful green spaces such as Hampstead Heath. It was rewarding and fun. But it didn’t pay the bills, and I missed writing for a living.
I like my job now, but by the end of the week I often feel a subtle, scratchy sensation that I only recognise as mild ill-being when I get back outdoors. When I walk in a woodland, or by a river, I feel my whole being sigh with relief and I realise how much my mind and body has missed natural sights, smells, textures and sounds.
Starling soap opera
So I delay my morning routine and decide to inhabit this moment with the birds. As I watch, I realise there’s a whole starling soap opera unfolding opposite – and that if I pay enough attention, I might work out some of the plot.
There are about four metal TV aerials on the roofs of the 80’s housing estate opposite me. Each consists of a horizontal steel bar, mounted on a vertical bar, with a small horizontal bar a little lower down. They all terminate in metal ‘arrows’ pointing north for some reason.
The starlings always gather on the aerials in the mornings, but rarely later on. I’ve never really considered why they gather, but I guess they’re using them as they might use trees if the city wasn’t here. The aerials provide the highest vantage point for scouring the local area and watching out for predators.
What are they looking for? Food, presumably, but what would they eat in January? I speculate. It’s too cold for insects, so it has to be worms, fruit, berries and anything they can scavenge. Maybe, just maybe, they’re already looking for potential nesting sites.
The language of starlings
Do they share that information with each other? If not, why bother to fly off in small groups and then come back? I’m sure if I was nearer I would hear a din of starling chatter – that busy, bubbling, mischievous sound – they’re definitely communicating.
If you want to know what starling speech sounds like, here’s a clip.
Starlings are great vocal mimics and Mozart even taught one the opening bars of his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G.
Have a listen next time you visit the supermarket and you’re in the car park. They’re often there, on the make, having realised it’s a great source of dropped and crushed food. Look out for a blackbird-sized bird with dark foliage dotted with spots, gleaming green and purple in places. Head high, it will be boldly sauntering about the car park as if it owns the place – and it won’t be on its own. Its mates will be nearby. If these birds were humans, I imagine them like a rough urban family, noisy and sharp, relying on each other to survive in tough conditions. I love their intelligence and the way they’ve adapted to living alongside us. Some of them do great impressions of car alarms.
As I watch the birds, I realise they never gather for long, and never all at once. It’s almost as if they’re working in shifts. A few fly off at a time, do a circuit of the estate, and then return.
And I notice that even when they alight, they’re rarely still. One of them keeps edging away from another bird down the aerial, but at each move he’s being stalked by his buddy. Then he gives up and flies away and his stalker takes off after him. Is that courtship? Aggression? Does the starling stalker just want to be friends, vainly trying to ingratiate itself?
Starlings: #forthemany not the few?
The top of the aerial arrow is the favoured position. I see them vie with each other for the spot, even though it’s only a tiny bit higher than the rest of the structure, so the advantage is purely symbolic. I notice one starling repeatedly fly at the top of the aerial, trying to dislodge the incumbent. Perhaps the height displays a kind of pecking order and starlings are like cats – the individual with the highest spot in any group is the ‘king’. If that’s the case, the king changes frequently, I notice – so it seems starlings might be considered egalitarian?
8.20. Time to get ready for work. But I notice that twenty minutes watching those birds and not thinking about myself and my to-do list, has lifted my spirits and cleared the crap from my mind, like the blue sky washed by last night’s storm.
Postscript: New study just out reveals that watching birds near your home is good for you! “Birds around the home, and nature in general, show great promise in preventative health care, making cities healthier, happier places to live”