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A monthly commentary on birds in and around The Farleighs.

 

I have lived in East Farleigh for more than thirty years. As well as witnessing the steep country-wide decline in bird life over that period, I've become closely involved in monitoring the changes and in finding ways to conserve what we still have.

 

And there are good things happening too, so I hope this contribution presents a mixture of what makes the study of birds so interesting, especially of those still seen around The Farleighs.

 

Ray Morris

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Latest Posts

A warm bumbarrel

Posted on 17th March, 2020

My first day of Boris’ self-isolation diktat has been brightened by the discovery of a bumbarrel in the greenhouse. Before you reach for Google, bumbarrel is an old country name for the Long-tailed Tit – those tiny bundles of white, russet and pink feathers that arrive in your garden in family groups of a dozen or more. I soon cornered it and popped it in a bag for a few moments while I prepared to put a tiny, numbered ring on its leg. I weighed and measured it too before sending it on its way within minutes of catching it.

 

We ring the birds so that we learn how long they live (for this species, typically two years – but only if they are the one in four young that survives its first year), where they go (not very far) and many other aspects of their lives. The one I had in my hand weighed just 7.9g – a healthy weight and a little above average. This weight was soon explained when I blew gently on the bird’s tummy to part the feathers. A small patch of bare skin was starting to appear where tiny down feathers had fallen out. This, then, was a female bird preparing to lay eggs. The extra weight represented the additional nourishment needed to produce her own weight in eggs - six to nine of them - at a rate of one a day. So that explained why a pair of these Hedge Mumruffins (another old country name) had recently become regular visitors to the fat block on my garden feeder.

 

I may be lucky enough to find their exquisite nest – a tiny, barrel-shaped (hence the name) construction of moss and lichen, bound with spider silk and lined with up to a thousand feathers. There is no entrance – birds just part the sides as necessary. Many of the feathers are from the female’s breast – this not only lines the nest, but exposes her bare skin (which becomes distended with engorged blood-vessels near the surface) to form a brood patch. This allows direct contact of her skin on the eggs so she can maintain the optimum temperature for the chick to develop.

 

And, just like Boris is exhorting us to do in the present crisis, the extended family – last year’s young, siblings, uncles and aunts all pull together to help the parents feed and care for their brood. This behaviour is almost unique amongst birds – let’s hope it’s more common amongst us!

 

Here, in a shrub in my garden last year, are a family of recently fledged Bum Towels (another name) lined up in an orderly queue waiting for the family to feed them.

 

So as all of us are set to spend more time at home over the coming months, we can at least be sure of entertainment from bumbarrels and the many other birds busily reproducing in our gardens.

 

And if, safely cossetted behind the double-glazing we yearn for the outdoors and the countryside - why not turn to the poetry of John Clare, known in his time as The Peasant Poet? Here is his poem about the Feather Poke (yes - yet another one!).

 

                                                  Bumbarrel’s Nest                                                        

The oddling bush, close sheltered hedge new-plashed,

Of which spring’s early liking makes a guest

First with a shade of green though winter-dashed –

There, full as soon, bumbarrels make a nest

Of mosses grey with cobwebs closely tied

And warm and rich as feather-bed within,

With little hole on its contrary side

That pathway peepers may no knowledge win

Of what her little oval nest contains –

Ten eggs and often twelve, with dusts of red

Soft frittered – and full soon the little lanes

Screen the young crowd and hear the twitt’ring song

Of the old birds who call them to be fed

While down the hedge they hang and hide along.

 

John Clare

 

 

 

GARDENS FOR WILDLIFE – FEATHERED AND OTHERWISE

Posted on 26th February, 2020

Looking at my sodden garden after the weekend of Storm Dennis, with overturned plant pots and a lawn strewn with dead wood and branches ripped from trees and shrubs, it’s hard to imagine that in just a few weeks nature will re-assert itself. But the signs are already there: a mistle thrush (known as the storm-cock in days gone by) is already singing into the wind at the top of a tree, a male blackbird is shoo-ing two other males away from his intended mate, and clumps of daffodils look pleasantly out of place in the untended grass.

 

It’s said that the total area of UK gardens is greater than the combined areas of all our nature reserves. Just think of West Farleigh – our gardens will more than equal the area of the Quarry Wood KWT reserve. Their potential, therefore, for making a difference to our fast-declining wildlife is huge. Whether they are ‘wild’ or aspire to ‘Best Kept Garden’ status our gardens’ capacity for helping wildlife is enormous, and no garden is too small. If we want nature’s big showy things we need its little things too: bugs - the small things that run the world!

 

Fortunately, bugs - insects, spiders, worms etc., everything from bacteria to bees in fact  - aren’t as fussy as us and are just as happy to set up home in a tidy garden as they are in an untidy one - if we let them. So there’s no reason why keen Farleigh gardeners can’t also play a part in helping boost nature with additional food and accommodation for these vital creatures.

 

No gardener will object to additional butterflies coming to nectar-rich flowers, be they native plants or exotic blooms from the garden centre. The inclusion of just a few modest native specimens, like ivy for example, will also feed a range of small creatures, often when the more ‘showy’ plants have finished.

 

Ivy bees (above) fertilize ivy flowers (and lots of others too).

Ivy berries last through the winter and feed lots of birds when food is short.

 

 

And small creatures will attract larger ones – hedgehogs, birds, bats and even jewel-like dragonflies if there is water nearby.

 

Kent Wildlife Trust offers practical help to people who want more wildlife in their garden (for garden, read: everything from small patio to a couple of acres) through their Wild About Gardens Scheme. They will visit and offer suggestions on the small things you can do to help widen your garden’s appeal to wildlife. And it’s free! Just contact

 

Maureen.Rainey@kentwildlife.org.uk  01622 357829

and ask, or visit their website:

www.kentwildlifetrust.org.uk

 

 

 

Having a garden alive with wildlife – be it birds, bees, bacteria or boletus mushrooms (they’ll grow on your lawn if you mow round them) - will help ‘West Farleigh In Bloom’ too. Plants and animals soon spill over fences and boundaries onto verges, and as there are plans to create ‘wildlife verges’ around the village it will work the other way too.

The bad news isn’t all bad ...

Posted on 29th January, 2020

What’s happening to our birds? Media headlines are becoming increasingly fraught with reports of dwindling biodiversity (it is), and the UK being the most nature-depleted country in Europe (it appears to be if you dig deeper into the often monotonous, but green, farmland that covers much of our countryside) and when hearing a once-common bird like cuckoo or skylark is something to comment on.

But although their numbers are tumbling in much of the countryside, they seem to be doing well in our gardens. Figures just released to mark twenty-five years of the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Birdwatch scheme (https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/gbw) suggest that gardens are a much-needed haven for some hard-pressed familiar species. In the south east, for example, finches, tits, house sparrows and starlings are the birds most likely to be seen at our feeders.

 

Two of these though, starlings and house sparrows, have suffered significant declines. House sparrow numbers halved in the south east between 1995 and 2007, but are hanging on in our gardens and are just starting to increase again. Starlings, though, have declined by sixty percent and their numbers are still dropping, even though they seem ever-present in our gardens.

 

Both these species are regular visitors to my East Farleigh garden and, for almost ten years I have been ringing first house sparrows, and then for the last two years, starlings for research into their declines being carried out by the BTO. This showed that the life expectancy for an adult house sparrow was slightly less in the south-east than elsewhere in the country; roughly forty-three percent of adults die in each year – to be replaced by a roughly equal number of young birds who survive their first winter. So the species is just about hanging on.

 

From May to July last summer I trapped and ringed three hundred and twenty starlings in my garden as part of this research, so we still appear to have a reasonable population. While they are still visiting our gardens in good numbers there is still hope. Unfortunately, their numbers are nowhere near enough for many of the spectacular winter murmurations like the ones we used to see when I was (a lot) younger. Just a few days ago I saw what I estimated to be a flock of three hundred starlings swirling about like stirred coffee, occasionally turning a mustard yellow when caught in the setting sun. Although it was a beautiful sight, it was tinged with sadness in the knowledge that it hardly compared with what we used to enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our changing climate is having an effect too - and, again, it is not all bad new as far as gardens are concerned. Some birds are actually spreading across more of the country, partly as a result of having gardens with bird feeders to help them move through built-up areas. This link will provide more information  https://community.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/b/biodiversity/posts/how-does-climate-change-affect-garden-birds

 

And here is a bird that is benefitting from a warming climate. It's a little egret (photo courtesy of Darren Nicholls). Formerly a mediterranean and tropical bird it is slowly spreading north - this one was photographed in Marden recently. Not exactly a garden bird, but good to see on our lakes and rivers. I recently saw one in Tovil, perched on a Tesco trolley someone had thrown into the Loose Stream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So the message is - birds need our (preferably not too tidy) gardens and the food we put out for them. So why not become a regular garden bird feeder? If you want to make your garden feeding even more useful, sign up for the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch and double the pleasure too.

 

 

In the bleak midwinter – or somewhere sunnier?

Posted on 19th December, 2019

As we approach Christmas and the shortest days of the year, snuggled down in front of warm fire, it is easy to think that nature is hunkered down too. Hibernating species like hedgehogs, and all cold-blooded animals like frogs and insects, are. But now the nights are long, birds have the challenge of finding enough food to lay down sufficient fat to see them through until morning. Tiny birds like wrens, for example, can burn up half their bodyweight just staying alive while they sleep. Meanwhile, flocks of loudly ‘chack-chacking’ fieldfares, winter visitors from Scandinavia gorging on rotten orchard apples, remind us that many millions of birds just deal with the winter by migrating somewhere warmer. Or, in the case of those that come here, to somewhere less cold!

 

Partridges in pear trees notwithstanding, our imaginations might just wander to think about our summer birds – blackcaps, cuckoos and East Farleigh church’s very own swift. If not hibernating or hunkering, where are they? Actually, swifts can hibernate after a fashion – but that’s for another Lifeline. 

 

'Our' East Farleigh Church swfit - here's hoping s/he's safe and warm.

 

The blackcap, with its loud, robin-like song, is an interesting example of the effect of our warming climate. For eons, birds that have spent summer in northern Europe have simply flown south to Spain and northern Africa to spend winter in Mediterranean comfort. Now, some blackcaps that spend summer in Germany migrate instead to the UK, where our winters are becoming milder. If they survive our winter (many have learnt to use our plentiful garden feeders) they then have a shorter flight back to their breeding grounds than other blackcaps that made the journey to the Mediterranean. This means they can nab the best territories and raise more young – which are then genetically programmed to spend winter in a UK heated by a warming Atlantic Ocean. Evolution in action.

 

We know from satellite tracking that our cuckoos migrate down to sub-Saharan Africa, where they arrive in November, often in exactly the same area they went to in previous winters. From Equatorial Guinea or Gabon they move just south of the equator to spend Christmas in the tropical Congo Forest, before starting their long migration north again around February. So just four months of their year are spent here, around The Farleighs – yet we think of them as typically British birds: our birds, in fact. Recent studies, though, have shown the UK to be the most nature-depleted country in Europe. I wonder how long it will take our continuing onslaught on the countryside in general, and insects in particular, before cuckoos no longer grace our shores.

 

And what of the swift – just thirty-five grams of feathered life that graced our church twice  this summer? Again, modern technology has helped us discover that they too spend their winters aloft circling tropical Africa, and flying in a wide arc over the adjacent Atlantic. We know now that it’s not just ‘our’ swifts either that do this; studies on Chinese swifts fitted with tiny tracking devices in Beijing show them wintering in the same area as ours. Same species, different populations from opposite sides of the world, happily sharing that most basic resource, food. Is there a lesson here for us?

What would He have done about the birds?

Posted on 2nd November, 2019

In the wake of the recently published State of Nature 2019 report – a summary of how wildlife is faring on our island, and one that shows a continuing decline – I decided to look at my own records for my garden birdwatching. Although I’ve lived in The Farleighs thirty-seven years it was only on retirement that I found the time to keep regular records, so I compared totals from the last three months in 2019 with the same months in 2012.

 

To my surprise, the numbers of species recorded were identical: thirty. But closer  examination revealed small changes, and reflected those in the national report. I no longer see spotted flycatchers making their circular, loop-the-loop forays to catch insects from my garden trees; being long-distance migrants their numbers have dropped catastrophically as a result of a warming climate (they can’t evolve fast enough to cope with the changing weather patterns) and lack of insects (overuse of chemical insecticides is largely to blame). Sadly, there is a strong likelihood of their imminent extinction in the UK.

 

On the other hand, there has been an increase in predators recorded: kestrels, for example, normally associated with open fields and motorway verges, and the woodland specialist sparrowhawk, while still declining nationally are coming to my garden more frequently. But is this because gardens support more birds for the predators to hunt than the countryside? For some species, such as goldfinch, there is clear evidence that garden feeding has helped their population increase and I rarely record fewer than four individuals at a time on my feeder.

 

But, overall, the consensus is that we are now rapidly changing our climate and destroying the natural environment on which humans depend. We aren’t destroying the planet of course, it will continue spinning through space whatever happens – it’s just that we won’t be on it!

 

Had He been alive today, would Jesus have joined the group of The Farleighs villagers at the Extinction Rebellion protests? It seems He wasn’t one to shy away from controversial action where moneylenders and tax collectors were concerned, so would He also be rebelling against the destruction of His creation by inconveniencing their modern day equivalents in Westminster and The City. Answers on a postcard please .......

 

 

Some Farleigh residents visited the recent Art in the Garden event at Marden. You will be pleased to know the event raised over £1K for local wildlife - £800 of which was presented to the RSPB. KM report below:

 

ARTISTS PAINT A BRIGHTER PICTURE FOR WILDLIFE

Wildlife conservation in Kent received a boost from the work of local artists at a recent two-day ‘Art in the Garden’ exhibition. Painters and sculptors were among twenty-five artists who gathered to show their work in the delightful grounds of the medieval Mill Farm House, home of Marden designer and photographer Claire Dominic.

With much to catch their eye, visitors enjoyed browsing the art and stalls of local produce. Live music from local bands provided the perfect background to relax with homemade cake and tea, or locally produced beers, cider and gin.

The natural world was represented by The Big Cat Sanctuary and Operation Turtle Dove. Both  provided insights into their groundbreaking work in Kent and shared the entrance proceeds from the two days.

 

As a new village resident Claire Dominic said she was “impressed by the wealth of wildlife in the area” as she  presented Nicole Khan, the RSPB’s Turtle Dove Officer for Kent, with a cheque for £800 to support the work of Operation Turtle Dove. Farmland in Marden is one of the few places in south-east England where the iconic Turtle Dove can still be found and local landowners are working closely with the RSPB to give this bird the lifeline it needs to avoid becoming extinct in the UK. Nicole praised local farmers’ enthusiasm and confirmed that it has been a very productive year for Turtle Doves in Marden and the surrounding countryside. She said “The money will be used to provide the supplementary food needed to help the birds through their next breeding season as farmers continue their splendid efforts to help this beautiful dove.”

 

However, the traditional ‘second day of Christmas’ gift to a loved one will be driven towards  extinction in Kent if plans being considered by Maidstone Borough Council to build two thousand houses in Marden are allowed to progress. Ray Morris, one of a group of ecologists working with local landowners, pointed out that the proposed site supports significant numbers of nationally declining scarce farmland birds. “Whatever developers claim” he said “they cannot mitigate the destruction of farmland on which birds like turtle doves and yellowhammers depend.”

 

 

Ivy? (If you have the good fortune to be young enough and have no idea what this is about, just Google the title!).

 

No they don’t, actually. Ivy leaves are mildly poisonous and can give little lambs (and us) a nasty stomach upset if eaten; skin contact can cause a rash in some people too. Ivy flowers on the other hand, although just a plain inconspicuous green, are a boon to wildlife as they don’t appear until autumn, providing much needed nectar for bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths. Their berries last through the winter and are a godsend to wild birds as the supply of other fruits and berries dries up. Throughout the spring and summer the entangled, twisting foliage is ideal for concealing birds’ nests while hosting the myriad insects that provide food for the summer explosion of animal life.

 

Granted, ivy can present problems for trees, particularly when it produces a ‘sail’ effect on a tall tree so that it is more prone to wind damage. But its value to other wildlife is so great, a balance needs to be struck when ‘protecting’ a tree – particularly a non-native tree whose leaves, flowers or fruits feed few native insects or birds. But if you have an already dead tree in the garden, it’s an ideal support for ivy to scramble over as the stump slowly rots, producing yet more insects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ivy even has its own bee species dependent on it – the not-surprisingly named Ivy Bee. This new arrival in the UK (from Europe in 2001 and now spreading quickly north and west into Wales) appears to be perfectly benign, posing no threat to native species. It is a solitary bee, so has no need to sting to protect a store of honey, but can be easily confused with the slightly bigger honey bee. Females lay eggs in burrows in the ground.

 

 

 

Although solitary, there are often lots of individual nests close together. The males have a habit of waiting for a female to emerge from her burrow, whereupon large numbers of them attempt to mate with her, forming a ‘bee ball’.

 

So this boring plant, despised by many, is actually a key feature for a biodiverse garden.

 

Long may it scramble.

A day out with art, music, moths and birds

Posted on 15th September, 2019

I occasionally mention the work I do with birds at Mill Farm in Marden in this blog. Now is the chance for anyone interested to learn more about it at a two-day Art in the Garden event in the beautiful grounds of the old (medieval) Mill Farm House this coming weekend.

 

Twenty-five artists will be displaying their work. There will be live music, local beers, gin and cider, cakes and refreshments, as well as a farm shop for fresh local foods. The RSPB will have a stand showing their work for the Turtle Dove Project in Kent, and the Big Cat Sanctuary will be there - but without the cats! There will also be information about the conservation work being carried out by yours truly and a group of volunteers, and we will be running a live moth trap, identifying moths trapped overnight on the farm. So come along on Saturday or Sunday and have your eyes opened by these beautiful creatures that are as vital for pollination as the bees. And by the fantastic art of course!

 

Proceeds from the two days will all go to charity.

 

When does a dove become a pigeon?

Posted on 31st August, 2019

Usually when it becomes a pest; there is no scientific difference. If we like it, or it has positive connotations, we call it a dove. Doves are symbolic of good things in many religions – in Christianity it is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The turtle dove is a symbol of love, to be given to one’s heart-throb on the second day of Christmas, and we persist in releasing Doves of Peace (or are they just white pigeons?) on special occasions or to commemorate the dead. Mediaeval manor houses had dovecotes in which they reared pigeons to provide fresh meat in the winter – a good thing before the days of the freezer, hence they were called doves. Most UK doves/pigeons will lay successive clutches of two eggs throughout the year, so our ancestors could fetch fresh squabs from the dovecote for a warming winter casserole.

 

An increasingly frequent visitor to our gardens is the woodpigeon, once called the ring dove until it became an agricultural pest after country people stopped catching them for the pot. Their numbers have gone up dramatically so that they are the fifth most-likely species to visit gardens according to the RSPB. I have a regular pair, plus their frequent offspring, in mine. 


The collared dove is another frequent (and, because of its repetitive call, some find irritating) visitor. As it is a relatively recent arrival in the UK (the early 1950s) and was much sought-after by birders it is still called a dove.


The feral, or town, pigeon (descended from the now scarce rock dove) needs no introduction. Unfortunately they are easily, and usually are, confused with the stock dove.

 

 



Stock doves are common in rural areas – I have a pair nesting in my garden – and they usually reveal their presence with a soft, deep “coo-roo”. Unlike their town cousins they don’t foul buildings as they nest in holes in trees (tree trunks were referred to as stocks in days gone by, hence the name). Although superficially similar to ‘town pigeons’, stock doves all resemble each other: a largely uniform soft grey back, pinkish underside, an iridescent patch on its neck and a black eye. It has a single pair of black, ‘wonky’ quotation marks (‘ ‘) towards the back of its closed wing. Like all their relatives, they feed their young on ‘pigeon milk’ secreted from glands in their throat until the young birds are able to cope with solid food.

 

Stock doves are on the amber list of conservation concern, but I’ve no doubt many are mistakenly killed by shooters targeting woodpigeons and feral pigeons; perhaps shotgun licences should only be granted to people who can tell the difference? Meanwhile, if you are lucky enough to have them in your garden, marvel in the symmetry of their mainly monochrome plumage, and admire their gentle, peaceful demeanour.

A Swift Exit

Posted on 30th July, 2019

For us, August is holiday time – the height of summer. But for many birds, it marks the beginning of autumn, or at least the start of their migration season. By the time you read this, cuckoos we heard in village orchards this year be well on their way back to central Africa. ‘Our’ cuckoos actually spend less than half the year with us. As I write, on July 30th, of the twelve cuckoos currently with satellite-tags fitted by British Trust for Ornithology scientists, seven are already in the Mediterranean area of France or Spain – one having crossed to Africa then returned to Spain – an eighth has taken a more easterly route via Italy and is now on the northern edge of the Sahara, while three are just completing their desert crossing! The twelfth cuckoo, ringed in Sherwood Forest in May 2018, was sadly found dead on July 3rd near Dungeness. It had apparently hit a window. Yet another man-made hazard that birds have to face.

 

 

Swifts are another species we associate with summer as they screech through the skies above us. They, too, leave us at the beginning of August, to winter soaring above tropical Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. Incidentally, if you are lucky enough to see telephone wires with rows and rows of birds on them, you’ll be looking at swallows and martins, as swifts are unable to perch. They spend their entire life aloft, only landing to lay eggs and raise young. Even then, the most they can do is cling to rough surfaces. They have impossibly short legs that won’t support their body, so in their nest cavity they have to lever themselves about with their wings.

 

Churchwarden George Moore came across a swift in East Farleigh church one evening recently. At first glance it looked like a starling, so he assumed it would exit the way it came in. When it was still there next morning he realised his mistake! We tried tempting it through the open door with a recording of swift calls, but eventually had to use a net to trap it (without harming it of course). What a privilege to have a swift in my hand - probably the closest this bird will ever come to any human. A brief examination suggested it was a young bird, but they are difficult to age and sex, even in the hand - and especially if it is your first encounter with the species. It was quickly measured, weighed and fitted with a uniquely numbered ring, and we sent it on its way, thinking that was that.

 

 

But it wasn’t.... Two weeks later the same bird was back in the church! So we think it must have a nest cavity somewhere in the fabric, with a rear exit into the interior. The performance was repeated, but by now I had consulted someone with a lot of experience of the species so, with the help of photographs and wing measurements, we concluded it was probably and adult bird. It was duly sent on its way again and by now it may already be above southern Europe or even the Sahara Desert. Swifts return to their natal area to breed so hopefully it will make the perilous journey to the tropics and back safely.

 

 

 

 

 

But it will struggle. I’ve seen just six swifts above my garden this summer, nothing compared to the hundred-plus flocks of not too many years ago. Do tell me if you know of them nesting in a building in the village. Lack of insects and, even more serious, lack of nest sites are problems for them. They nest almost exclusively in buildings – but access to nest cavities under the eaves are increasingly blocked. All is not lost though - many enlightened owners of tall buildings now install swift nest boxes, and plans are now in hand for boxes to be erected around East Farleigh church, as they are on many others across Europe. Perhaps our summer evenings may yet again ring to the joyous screaming of this incredible bird.

 

If you'd like to learn more, Edward Mayer of Swift Conservation, will be talking about these fascinating birds in Goudhurst on the 18th September.

 

The bird with the Coat of Many Colours

Posted on 12th July, 2019

 

Or Joe Starling, as I call him, wearing his ‘Technicolour Dreamcoat’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                

In winter, Eastern European hordes (Joe Stalins?) swell our native population to create the magnificent murmurations captured on mobile phones across the country. But at this time of the year our garden feeders and lawns are filled with their noisy, squabbling offspring.

 

Not everyone though recognises the dull, uniformly brown youngsters as being the same species as the iridescent bluey-green, multicoloured-and-spotted adults. On the juvenile starling below, you can just make out the first adult feathers appearing on its back as it starts its moult. This process, in which it will shed every feather on its body and grow new, adult ones will take about a month. In the second picture, the young bird is close to finishing its transformation into adult plumage. The new set of feathers will be kept for a whole year, until after the bird has bred for the first time. Then, the old, worn feathers will be moulted yet again and replaced with a new set.

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Like its Biblical namesake, Joe is resented by some because he attracts all the attention as he hogs the best food on the bird table, or a swarm of them overwhelms the blackbirds and thrushes probing the grass in fields or on hitherto quiet garden lawns.

But starlings don’t have it all their own way. Sparrowhawks are desperately hunting small birds to feed their own youngsters, and these birds are a favourite prey; not only are starlings a good sized catch for a male sparrowhawk (the larger females are busy brooding their own youngsters in the nest) they are often so busy squabbling they don’t spot the stealthy hunter until it’s too late to escape.

Like most other birds too, starlings have suffered from our regime of sanitising our gardens and countryside. Their insect prey is being sprayed out of existence, and war is waged on the leatherjackets (the larvae of daddy-longlegs, which starlings have evolved to depend on) by gardeners looking for the perfect lawn. Leatherjackets feed on the roots of grasses, making it difficult for us to achieve the impossibly uniform lawns promoted by garden chemical manufacturers. The Lord is certainly quoted as saying “Go forth and multiply” - hence all the starlings at this time of the year - but I’ve yet to find a reference to  “Go forth and spray”. Enjoy their clownish antics while you still can.