Country diary: The starlings fall silent as they size me up

Otley, West Yorkshire: Never mind the murmurations, the way these birds instantly muzzle themselves seems almost telepathic

The unruly chorus of common starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) fills the fields to the east of Otley, sending the sounds of chattering, chirping, tweeting and trilling across a radius of at least half a mile. I immediately feel my spirits perk up at the sound of this jostling collective conversation, a ball of bright white noise in an otherwise muted February landscape.

I get closer and see hundreds of dark silhouettes festooning the bare branches of a tall ash tree. Starlings are sometimes the subject of a certain petty prejudice; perhaps there is something uncomfortably insectoid in the way they teem and swarm, in their collective intelligence. Even their oily, iridescent plumage – which looks black at a distance but up-close shimmers green and purple like a puddle of petrol – has a hint of beetle armour about it.

This group intellect is what enables starlings to produce their famous strobing, morphing murmurations, and while I don’t see this happen today, I do get a hint of the hive mind in action. I walk towards the tree, but clearly get a bit too close, and the entire flock instantly muzzles itself, like the saloon falling silent in a western. A few moments of silence, the swarm sizes me up, and the cacophony gradually starts up again. I’m not very threatening, it seems, but the speed of their massed decision-making seems to border on the telepathic.

Starling numbers plummeted a staggering 87% between 1967 and 2015, and are still in freefall. The rise of industrial agriculture is thought to be one of the possible causes, but the lightly managed fields around here probably still provide the birds with a rich larder of invertebrate food. This is just one example of the biodiversity value of this swathe of open country, and Leeds city council is to be commended for listening to local voices and deciding to rethink its initial plans for a massive, poorly considered housing development in these fields.

This is good news, at least for now. Any new plans must accommodate all the animal occupants of this landscape, not just the human ones.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Carey Davies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Country diary: Swimming with the starlings
Hayling Island, Hampshire: Their communal bath is such a frenzy of activity that it feels as though I’m watching them on fast forward

Claire Stares

22, Nov, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: starlings hold a modest gathering | Country diary
Langstone, Hampshire: Pre-roost murmurations have been known to number as many as 100,000 birds, but many roosts are significantly smaller than they used to be

Claire Stares

06, Nov, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: lost in wonder in the underwater jungle
Baston Fen, Lincolnshire: The verdant bioabundance of the Counter Drain overwhelms my plant identification abilities

Matt Shardlow

25, Sep, 2018 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: clear skies give quite the view
St Dominic, Tamar Valley: Just four miles away, steep shadowy woods of Morwell and Maddacleave mark the Devon bank of the Tamar

Virginia Spiers

21, May, 2020 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: the loneliest house in Wales?
Cefn Garw, Migneint, Snowdonia: Decades ago old Mr Roberts, who shepherded on horseback, departed his remote tyddyn, leaving the moor to fox, raven, pipit-hunting merlin

Jim Perrin

09, Jun, 2018 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a delayed harvest after the frost
Sandy, Bedfordshire: The gulls had changed their behaviour, as if they had got wise to the futility of foraging

Derek Niemann

11, Nov, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a swift blast of beetle mania
Raveningham, Norfolk: Soon my yellow shirt is smothered in tiny black dots, and across the field there must be millions of pollen beetles

Mark Cocker

03, Jul, 2018 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: the psychology of seeing off those thieving pigeons
Great Casterton, Rutland: Those bangs are meant to sound like guns – because birds know what guns do

Simon Ingram

18, Jan, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: a waterlogged world reverting to the wild
St Dominic, Tamar Valley: A fresh approach to this water-prone area has brought plant and animal life flooding back to the land

Virginia Spiers

19, Nov, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: wood pigeons gorge in huddles among the stubble
Sandy, Bedfordshire: There are rich pickings to be had as the harvested cereal fields simmer under a weakening sun

Derek Niemann

13, Sep, 2018 @4:30 AM