Identification

Starlings are blackbird-sized birds, with bustling feathers around the throat and dark plumage, glossed green and purple. They have white speckles across their bodies, except for the males during spring and summer, at which time they also develop a bluish tint to the yellow bill. The bills of both species become darker in the winter.

Starlings are highly gregarious, rarely being seen alone and often being found in huge groups, which can sometimes number several million individuals. Spectacular flying displays of these large groups are often seen. They are also very vocal birds, with chattering, whistling and knocking sounds being produced among many others, including imitations of other birds. Aptly, the collective noun for a group of starlings is a murmuration.

Size

19-22cm (7 ½-8 3/4in) long.

Distribution

Starlings are found throughout Britain, but become less common in upland areas and are mostly absent from the highest parts of the Scottish Highlands. Starling numbers swell dramatically in winter with the arrival of migrants from northern Europe.

Status

Although these are still one of the most common garden birds in Britain, there have been severe population declines of about 66 percent since the 1970s. These trends have seen the birds red-listed as a species of high conservation concern. Reasons for the decline are believed to relate to the intensification of farming, with the loss of permanent pasture and increased pesticide use resulting in poorer foraging. There has been a significant reduction in the number of young birds surviving to reach breeding age. Legal protection is under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, preventing the killing, injury or taking of a starling, or any form of damage being caused to a nest.

Habitat preference

Found in a range of habitats, particularly in open woodland, farmland, parks and gardens. Starlings tend to be least common in upland areas, but can be found almost anywhere else including very urban settings as well as rural areas. Huge communal roosts, occasionally numbering millions of birds, may form in woodland, on buildings and in other suitable habitat during the winter.

Where to find them in the garden

Despite population declines these are still one of the most common birds in the garden, and will often be found probing the soil for food, or taking food from the bird table. In the breeding season they may be in pairs, but mostly they will be found in flocks of highly variable size.

Role in the garden

Starlings are occasioally accused of causing damage to plants such as fruit trees and cereal crops, as both fruit and grains form part of their diet. However in reality they are a useful bird to have around. A major source of food for starlings is leatherjackets, or cranefly larvae. These are a common pest of many gardens, causing damage to plant roots. Starlings take other insects too, and as a common bird are very useful in controlling invertebrate numbers.