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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Kate Bradbury

Country diary: For the starlings, this is a tale of two cities

Starlings murmurate over Brighton Palace Pier as they prepare to roost in Brighton
Starlings murmurate over Brighton Palace Pier as they prepare to roost in Brighton. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

On the allotment, the trees sing with starlings, as if the birds were decorating them, as if it were Christmas. I listen to them click and whistle as I clear a bed to sow seeds. They chatter while I repaint my shed.

They’re famous for murmurating around Brighton pier, said to be one of the best places in the country to watch their heart-stopping displays. Sometimes I join the crowds to watch them shape-shift into the sky, as an orange sun sinks into the sea behind them.

I love the display, but I prefer the buildup. I prefer hanging back on the allotment as they get ready for their party. I prefer watching clouds of them pulse towards the seafront as I walk the dog, feeling their wingbeats over me before I step into the gym. Once, in my car, I stopped at the lights and thousands of them edged in, and then out, of view, as they made their way to the pier. It was as if they had been waiting to cross the road.

These starlings are as much a part of this city as the seafront itself. They dazzle onlookers each evening, but by day they’re among us: in our gardens and allotments, our trees and rooftops. Lately, they’ve been on our streets, too. Suffering national declines of 53% since 1995, it’s thought that a lack of food is to blame, thanks to intensively managed farmland and the loss of gardens beneath plastic and paving.

They eat insects, spiders and grubs – all of which, like the starlings, need spaces to live and breed. In 2019, Brighton and Hove council stopped using the weedkiller glyphosate on our streets (it has been linked to falling bee populations and, more contentiously, to cancer), but they couldn’t get the staff to do the job by hand and so complaints about Brighton’s weeds made national news. Amid all the noise and hot air, our starlings tucked in. Could our weedy streets have helped starling numbers?

There’s no way of knowing, not least because the council recently overturned the ban, and will resume its chemical warfare imminently. I will miss watching the starlings feed from our streets. May the allotment still sing with them.

• Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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