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Where have all the starlings gone?


Out for a walk last month I saw a Starling.

A single, solitary Starling. It made me stop and stare.

Where we the rest of them? Why had I not thought about Starlings in many years?

Well to be honest I could not remember seeing them for many years. As a child I used to see huge flocks of them over farmland where I lived. Perhaps I was even a little scared of them swooping around so near overhead, but they were a backdrop to life in the countryside. Back in the 1970s & 80s we used to see Starling murmurations regularly over many rural areas in the UK.

We knew numbers were in decline, by the 1990s the population had halved in just 25yrs. Starling murmurations were seen as a natural wonder, however Starlings themselves were regarded as an agricultural pest in some areas, a tension and attitude that has led to the decline in so much of our Biodiversity in recent years. We appear to believe we are in competition with every other living thing rather than being part of an ecological community. Starlings main food prey is leatherjackets (the larvae of crane fly which eat the roots of grasses and other crops) but they are opportunists and will take grain from animals feed, which can in turn mean inadvertent spread of disease.

Since the 1970s there has been a tenfold increase in the use of pesticides on agricultural land in the UK. This has a significant effect on the ability of Starlings to find leatherjackets. With less food around they simply cannot breed, as numbers decline farmers have to rely on more artificial pesticides to replace the impact that Starlings and their likes once provided. The systemic impact that insecticides have caused issues for many birds. Reducing our bird numbers then means that natural predators for pests are reduced throwing the natural cycle out and ensuring our reliance on artificial pesticides and other chemicals.

Flocks of Starlings and Sparrows used to be part of our daily landscape. Shifting baseline syndrome (over time knowledge is lost about the state of the natural world, because people don’t perceive changes that are actually taking place) means that we do not fully appreciate, or even notice, what we have lost. I was shocked to find that I had fallen into this. I hadn’t even noticed that lack of Starlings for years. I knew it was a huge issue back in the 1990s and then somehow even as someone involved in conservation and environmental education I had stopped thinking about Starlings when I stopped seeing them.

Our Identity is formed as we experience the world in all its forms, nature is part of that identity and we are losing so much of what we used to be. Humans evolved as part of the wider more than Human world, when we lose parts of that we lose part of ourselves. We know on a deep level that something is missing, although what can be difficult to discern. We replace loss in so many ways, we feel grief but are uncertain of the cause, which can lead to mental health issues and feelings of disconnection. Acknowledging nature and the wider environment we live in as part of our community and social identity could be a useful first step in healing the many issues our world faces.

What wildlife or natural sights do you remember from childhood that you just don’t see much anymore?

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