A murmuration of starlings

OU Geography on BBC's Autumnwatch: Starlings Galore?

The acclaimed BBC natural history series Autumnwatch is back for a new season. Episode 1 will be broadcast next Tuesday October 29th at 8 pm on BBC 2, reporting on the initial results of an ongoing 'citizen science' project, in conjunction with the British Trust for Ornithology and the Open University, which asks people to survey the wildlife living in their gardens to help scientists build a comprehensive picture of exactly what lives on the nation's doorsteps. 

The following piece by Dr Andy Morris, Senior Lecturer in Geography at the Open University, was published on OpenLearn earlier this year in the context of his role as academic consultant to the series.

 

Nature, space and the shifting geographies of human-starling relations

 

A starling in the countryside is just a starling, but when it enters the city it becomes a pest. Andy Morris discusses how pests exist when nature is ‘out of place’. 

 

Starlings provide us with a useful example of how broader understandings of nature and society have come to represent a separation in our relationship with the non-human world, a separation which is a distinct curiosity of what Bruno Latour calls ‘the modern divide’. This separation of nature and society and the relationships which serve to highlight it are a central concern of the Level 2 Geography and Environment module ‘Environment and Society’ (DD213).

The Common or European Starling is a familiar bird across much of Europe and whilst it is still a common bird its numbers have steadily declined across Europe since the 1980s. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but the most popular theories suggest that it is a mixture of habitat loss and the decline of its staple food of ground-dwelling invertebrates, a not unfamiliar story of decline regarding many species in the era of agricultural intensification.

A park bench in Leicester Square, London, covered in droppings by starlings.
A park bench in Leicester Square, London, covered in droppings by starlings.

 

However, in the UK perhaps the most striking aspect of this decline was that until the mid-1980s the starling was a bird commonly seen in huge numbers within cities where birds, drawn to the warmer urban environment, would come to roost during the winter months, twisting and pulsating in swirling patterns known as murmurations. The sight and sound of often hundreds of thousands of Starlings blackening the winter sky at dusk were a routine event in locations such as Trafalgar and Leicester Square in London, but within a few years they had all but disappeared from the cities of the British mainland. 

Starlings began to use these cities as roosting sites from the beginning of the 20th century as human population growth and increased urbanisation led to a greater disparity between rural and urban night time temperatures in winter, making cities increasingly attractive to this intelligent and adaptable species. By the middle of the century the movements and routines of such large numbers of starlings in London began to intersect with those of the human population too. The presence of hundreds of thousands of defecating starlings led to fears of threats to human health and damage to buildings.

In 1949 the Houses of Parliament clock, commonly known as ‘Big Ben’, was slowed by more than 4 minutes under the weight of roosting starlings causing it to miss its cue to signal the start of the BBC 9 o’clock news. By 1953 the matter of London’s growing starling population was being debated within parliament and a range of speculative methods for controlling their numbers was discussed. The anxieties raised by urban starlings gained such a reputation that they even became the subject of political satire in 1954 when the popular radio comedy show The Goons, dedicated an episode to satirising the parliamentary debates.

In human terms starlings had gained the status of pest and through the 1970s and 80s buildings, pavements and street furniture became increasingly encrusted with starling poo, crowds of cinema goers and tourists in Leicester Square also being regular targets. In response Westminster council spent increasing time and money attempting to eradicate the birds, all without success. But then, over the course of a few years in the mid-1980s, the birds began to disappear for no apparent reason.

Of course the starling is only one of many non-human creatures that have gained the status of pest, entangling their movements and practices with humans in ways which challenge and unsettle the supposedly human-centred order of social life. In this sense, the status of ‘pest’ is revealing of how the geographies of nature are imagined – pests exist where nature is ‘out of place’, a starling in the countryside is just a starling, it is part of nature. The starling is therefore a useful example in highlighting the way that nature is popularly imagined as spatially demarcated from the social world of the city.

As philosopher Kate Soper has said, nature is a place of return, to which we go or get back, getting back to nature is in this sense, as much about getting out of time, or away from progress, of course these are all characteristics which are conventionally at odds with the contemporary city. Perhaps then, as Geographer Noel Castree has suggested, it is less interesting to think about what nature is and of more value to think about what it is considered to be.

One of the principal ways in which this perception of nature is framed is through natural history television programming and in recent years programmes such as ‘AutumnWatch’ and SpringWatch’ have been something of a surprise success in the UK. In a 2005 episode, then presenter Bill Oddie visited a starling roost and the film footage of murmurating starlings became an instant hit, even leading to the use of similar footage for a television advert for Carling lager with the tag line ‘Belong’. At the few nature reserves where starlings were roosting crowds of people, often visiting nature reserves for the first time, began to grow just to watch murmurating starlings. At the RSPB Ham Wall reserve in Somerset one winter evening in 2015 over 1000 people turned up to witness the spectacle.

Within the spaces that starlings now roost: the nature reserve, the seaside pier, the coastal marsh, they have been reappraised, in these spaces their fortunes have turned from pest to spectacle, they have become nature once more within the shifting spatial relations of humans and starlings. The starlings used to follow us for the warmth provided by our cities, now we follow them for the life affirming spectacle they offer us.