Welcome return of the ‘heavenly riffraff’ of starlings and their ‘shifting bird-cloud’ to the skies above the Lagan

With starlings and their aerial dance back over Belfast’s Albert Bridge, Stephen Colton reflects on the beauty and mystery of murmurations

Thousands of starlings return to roost under Belfast's Albert Bridge after moves to reduce light pollution. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Thousands of starlings return to roost under Belfast's Albert Bridge after moves to reduce light pollution (Mal McCann)

In William Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem The Prelude we learn of the poet’s deep love for the natural world and his preference for nature as a companion throughout life. His words from the text, “Ye presence of Nature, in the sky / Or in the earth, ye visions of the hills / And the souls of lonely places”, came to mind recently when I learnt of the return of the ‘murmuring’ starlings over Belfast’s River Lagan.

‘Souls’ of lonely places these birds can be, but when in their thousands performing spectacular displays, they transform the evening sky with graceful dance and form. Crowds gathering on the Albert Bridge to welcome the birds back to the city’s skies must give credit to the recently formed Wild Belfast, a conservation body which works to promote and improve biodiversity across the city.

They were responsible for encouraging officials to reduce the effects of light pollution from a new lighting system installed under the bridge, where the birds roost, and which was thought to be partly responsible for deterring them.

The starling’s old English name, ‘stare’ or ‘steer’, eventually became starling and is used in Yeats’s poem The Stare’s Nest by My Window where he invites honeybees to “Come build in the empty house of the stare”.

It is over 10 years since I along with others from my local area experienced the joy of witnessing the aerial spectacle of a starling murmuration over a small woodland plantation, outside the village. During those winter months, small flocks of birds, prompted by fading light, were drawn to the roosting site, gradually joined by others before thousands began performing synchronised movements across the sky creating rolling shapes and curved patterns or, as Michael Longley describes, “a shape-Shifting bird-cloud” in his poem Starlings.

Each evening from November through to early spring, the birds arrived above the woodland to produce this piece of theatre for upwards of half an hour before descending in unison, to the seclusion and safety of the trees, as darkness closed in. Many speculate on how huge numbers of birds can move with such precision and speed without colliding and about the signals they use to trigger sudden changes in direction and pace. Ornithologists believe starlings gather in such large numbers to give a sense of safety and security from predators before they roost.

Thousands of starlings return to roost under Belfast's Albert Bridge after moves to reduce light pollution. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Starlings perform a murmuration over the River Lagan (Mal McCann)

An example of this regular collective night roosting can also be found in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, by pied wagtails, where the existence of a roost was mentioned by CB Moffat (Irish Naturalists’ Journal, 1931) referencing a note in 1929, by a WJ Williams that, about a hundred pied wagtails were found roosting in a tree amid the noise of the busy traffic and in the full glare of the electric light”.

By 1934, the numbers had risen to 2,000, occupying two trees. With numbers increasing annually, it was thought that by 1950, over 3,000 wagtails were present, occupying three trees. Such communal roosts are commonplace too with the crow family in noisy rookeries, and in heronries, both helping to give protection and benefit to individual birds. This safety in numbers experience is also observed when hundreds of waders and wildfowl are driven skyward by a hunting peregrine or sparrowhawk along coastal mudflats.

The starlings have yet to return to Dromore and perform their aerial dance, but it’s encouraging to know locals and visitors at Belfast’s Albert Bridge will continue to enjoy one of nature’s most spectacular sights, described by Longley again as, “Heavenly riffraff flocking / Before they flap down to roost”.