Beak by Jowl

by Sarah Dobson Urban Author - Alison Giacomelli Birds

Beak by Jowl – Our Fellow Feathered Friends

If you took a stroll along Brighton seafront after your Christmas dinner you may have been lucky enough to witness one of the Biosphere’s wildlife spectacles – a starling ‘murmuration’. The starlings roost on Brighton’s Palace Pier and several thousand can gather and perform their wheeling stunts before dropping down to roost for the night.

We think starlings flock together and put on their aerial acrobatics show for a number of reasons – in the same way that fish shoal together, there is safety in numbers, as predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands. It is possible that they also gather to keep warm at night and exchange information, such as about good feeding areas.

However, there is still much to find out about murmurations, and you can help by taking part in a survey, and recording your sightings, run by the University of Gloucester and the Royal Society of Biology.

Whilst the starlings still put on an impressive show at Brighton’s remaining pier, their numbers have declined – this is probably partly due to the loss of the West Pier, which had been their favoured roost, but also mirrors declines across the UK. The new national list of ‘Birds of Conservation Concern’ has just been released and starlings remain on the ‘red list’ of most concern because they have declined by 70% over the last 25 years (and by 83% since 1969). These severe declines are believed to be due to a loss of pasture, increase in farm chemicals usage, and a shortage of both food and nesting sites in many parts of the UK.

The fact that enough starlings still remain to put on an impressive show in Brighton is testament to the fact that we are lucky to have the South Downs on our doorstep, whose farmland provides plenty of feeding habitat for them.

Unfortunately it’s not just starlings that have declined in number in recent times – the once ubiquitous house sparrow is another familiar urban bird that is also on the ‘red list’ of concern, because their numbers have dropped by 66% since 1969. One of the key reasons for their decline in urban areas is a lack of invertebrate food (‘creepy crawlies’) for chicks, which they need to give them the best start in life. This has been caused by the paving-over, ‘tidying up’ and insecticide-spraying of urban green spaces, combined with air pollution. So, a great way to help house sparrows in your garden is to ditch the aphid spray and let natural predators such as ladybirds be your pest controllers!

Another way that you can help is to record the birds you see in your garden annually in the world's biggest wildlife survey! This year the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch takes place at the end of this month over the weekend of 30-31 January. It only takes an hour and is suitable for all ages and abilities, but provides a great snapshot of how our garden and urban birds are faring.

The Big Garden Birdwatch has been going since 1979, and has recorded an 80% decline in starlings over that time, but house sparrows and starlings were still the top two birds recorded nationally in 2015. Within Sussex too, house sparrows were the most numerous species recorded in last year’s survey, followed by starlings and blue tits. But house sparrows and starlings were far from being found everywhere, as they were only recorded in 65% and 45% of gardens respectively. The birds recorded in most gardens were blackbirds and robins. Why not have a go later this month and see how your garden compares?

Additionally, for school children, the RSPB also runs the Big Schools Birdwatch, which again involves counting birds for an hour, but can take place any time between 4 January and 12 February. This year, Rose Dixie, our new Schools Outreach Officer is available to run Big Schools Birdwatch sessions in primary schools in the Biosphere. This is a partnership project with Aldi, funded through the new charges for plastic bags, to run free environmental education sessions focussed on Brighton and Hove, but extending into the rest of the Biosphere. To get in touch and book a session, teachers just need to fill in the form on the RSPB website.

Happy urban birding for 2016!

Alison Giacomelli

Conservation Officer


All images (c) RSPB

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