Starling’s startling decline

Starling, Sturnus vulgaris: adult, garden bird on feeder, England. May 2003.
Starling, Sturnus vulgaris: adult, garden bird on feeder, England. May 2003.

BIRD surveys this week show a decline in starlings and a likely drop in farmland species in the Borders.

Results from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ (RSPB) Big Garden Birdwatch show a marked decrease in starling numbers in the past decade.

More than 2,000 Borderers took part in the latest hour-long survey in January, which revealed the chaffinch as the most common local garden visitor, with an average of eight spotted at any one time.

But in line with 22 other areas in Scotland, the region saw a significant decline in the number of starlings, once common in local gardens.

RSPB experts suggest the losses could be because of environmental changes in the birds’ breeding grounds elsewhere in Europe but say further enquiry is necessary.

Borders RSPB officer Mike Fraser said: “The starling decline is a mystery to all of us, I think. I can’t add any more to what our in-house experts have said and further research is indeed required.

“As they say, it’s likely a combination of factors (and not necessarily the same ones) impacting here and overseas where our wintering birds come from.”

Numbers in the Borders have declined by nearly 20 per cent in the past decade. It is not the worst hit area – East Dunbartonshire has seen a drop of more than half of the chattering birds since 2002. Edinburgh is down 30 per cent and Glasgow by a quarter.

RSPB Scotland’s species policy officer Keith Morton said: “The causes are not well understood and, because many starlings migrate from breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe to winter here, declines may reflect environmental changes elsewhere in Europe.

“However UK-wide surveys are revealing declines in our breeding starling populations too, so it is clear that further work is needed to understand these losses.”

But starlings, which the charity describes as “famed for their iridescent colouring, squabbling bird-table behaviour and breath-taking murmurations” – still ranked third overall in Scottish gardens in the latest survey, though they appeared only fifth on the Borders’ list.

Chaffinches were spotted in more than 90 per cent of Borders gardens and more than 8,000 were sighted in that hour-long January survey. The second most commonly sighted bird was the house sparrow (nearly 6,000 in 75 per cent of gardens). Ranking third, more than 4,000 blue tits flew in to 90 per cent of Borders gardens, while more than 3,000 blackbirds showed up in the most Borders gardens (93 per cent), coming in fourth on the local bird table.

Nearly 2,500 starlings were sighted in almost 40 per cent of Borders gardens. Next were the great tits (2,000) in 70 per cent of gardens, coal tits (nearly 2,000) in 70 per cent, goldfinches (over 1,600) in just 35 per cent of gardens, woodpigeons (1,500) in over half of the region’s gardens and robins (nearly 1,500) in over 90 per cent of gardens.

Meanwhile Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has sounded the alarm for farmland birds.

Latest figures, most from the Breeding Bird Survey undertaken by RSPB volunteers, show what SNH describes as a “significant” decrease of eight per cent in farmland bird species.

Of those showing a drop in Scotland from 2009-2010, the worst hit are lapwings, rooks and linnets.

But over the long term, figures show the abundance of breeding birds – a measure looking at distribution, breeding, survival and productivity – with an increase of 17 per cent from 1994 to 2010, with farmland and woodland birds increasing also by 19 per cent and 43 per cent respectively, and upland birds showing no overall change.