There is a national decline in starlings and I know why. They are all in my garden hoovering up handfuls of meal worm. It all started with one family who moved into the fir tree conveniently situated two doors down. Apart from an unfortunate incident when Oscar, out of sheer curiosity, brought their nest home complete with three dead babies, it had been an ideal location. I say ‘had’ as both of these fir trees are now nothing more than firewood since the new urbanite neighbours moved in. From this one starling family, and with some credit to the reliability of my restaurant facilities, there is now a four generational dynasty living in the neighbourhood.
The baby starlings are the most entertaining to watch. They arrived late this year, not until well into June, due to an exceptionally cold spring. They follow their parents to the promised land of meal worm and fat ball and sit in huddles twitching their wings and squawking loudly. The overworked parents fetch dried meal worm from the tray and thrust it into the nearest open beak. They don’t seem to have any system for fair distribution and just feed whoever is nearest. I love to watch the moment when the baby starlings realise that they just need to bend down and peck up the food for themselves. This breakthrough sets them free from sibling rivalry and marks a coming of age worthy of a key to the door. No longer the victims of parental amnesia they are able to make their own way among the goodies on offer; quickly learning to hang on the fat ball and simultaneous defend against all comers. No mean feat for a youngster.
After a while the parents stop coming and the babies arrive in peer group gangs. This gives me the impression that my garden is the drive-in McDonalds of cuisine, while the parents spend their time picking up fresh leatherjackets in a more upmarket location. I don’t mind. The babies are more fun. They chase around the garden like Keystone Cops and squabble incessantly, to the point where they forget to eat. They sit on the washing line and poop on the clean clothes, or they poop down the back of the garden chairs, or on the fence. Just like all youngsters they need to learn a bit of bowel control.
The starlings visit on and off throughout the day, even though all the food goes out in the morning. I think that sometimes they come just for a bit of peace and quiet. My garden is probably the first place outside the nest they ever knew. A bit like visiting your old teacher, they drop by for the familiarity of the surroundings. One sunny afternoon, all was quiet in the garden, the two cats were stretched out in the shade and I was reading my book under the garden umbrella; when a single baby starling arrived and sat almost next to us on the feeder tray. He flipped his head this way and that in order to get a 360 view of the garden. He opened and shut his beak giving him a look of continual surprise. Then he held it wide open for a moment or two, sucking in the air in order to cool down. Sooty took a slight interest and gave a throaty cackle, then decided it was much too hot for all that malarkey and flopped down again. Although starlings tend to travel in flocks there are clearly those who crave to be individuals. Difficult when, like North Koreans, they all wear the same utilitarian black, speckled suits. This baby starling was still kitted out in his brown babygro, but the distinctive white flecks of manhood were already beginning to appear on his chest. He stayed with us for a good while; I guess he was just happy to be away from the crowd on a hot day. Together, we shared the tranquillity of that safe space; the bird, the cats and me.
The crows also bring their babies to the garden. They tend to practice more effective birth control techniques and usually have only one mouth to feed at a time. The baby crow has a distinctive ‘kraww’ which brings an attentive parent back with regular titbits. The crows are the scholars of the garden and soon worked out how to get to the seed I put out in a small hanging dish for the bluetits. I noticed a variety of techniques such as the grab-and-go method where the crow swoops in, grabs the seed and swoops off again in one smooth action. While others perfected the swinging trapeze approach where they would hang by their claws and use their wings as counter balance in order to feed at leisure. Well, leisure for an acrobat. None of the babies mastered either of these techniques, though many watched in awe at their parent’s acrobatic dexterity.
The only bird not to bring a baby to the garden; or to fly off with food is the pigeon. You never see a baby pigeon and this must be one of the secrets of their success. Pigeons only lay two eggs at a time and only a month after hatching these birds are fully fledged, ready to hang out with the big boys. In the nest the parents feed them with a milky fluid produced in their crop lining which is more nutritious than either cow or human milk. By starting in April, the female can lay more than one clutch in a season. The coal-miners must also be given some credit for the prolific abundance of these birds. They bred pigeons for years as racing birds and all that human assistance must have given them a head start in terms of population density. Unfortunately, pigeons are now victims of their own success, often called ‘flying rats’ and persecuted accordingly.
Pigeons are also the only bird that can drink water through their beaks like a straw, using a suction method. This again gives them the advantage as they don’t need to tip their heads back like other birds, so they don’t miss a trick. With the warmer weather I have made sure that the bird bowl is kept full of fresh water. Most of my bird visitors will drink from it during their early morning visit and one or two have enjoyed a refreshing dip in the waters. I have put some stones inside for the birds to stand on which also means that any mini-beast who stumbles in can find a way out. I have never fished any dead creatures from it yet.
The baby starlings are now growing their distinctive speckled plumage, but like all teenagers they still like to have the last word and the bickering continues.