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Part 29 - The Starling and the Chaffinch

Starling Sturnus vulgaris

A photo of a Starling taken in April 2008 by Rhys Haden

Common as the starling still is, its numbers dropped by perhaps 20% in just six years to 2000 – a loss of more than one million breeding pairs. As is so often the case, changes in agriculture are thought to have been responsible, especially the increase in autumn-sown cereals. These big declines have seen the disappearance of some famous winter roosts, like the one in the very heart of London. The huge roosts on the Brighton piers have acquired a certain fame in recent years but the one formerly based in the area around Leicester Square, St Martin’s Lane and The Mall might have consisted of half a million birds – an amazing sight anywhere but remarkable in a city centre.

I have never counted starlings locally but my impression is that numbers are declining here too. What’s yours?

Starlings’ plumage is spectacularly iridescent in summer and dull in winter. Birds walk rather than hop. They feed on grain when it’s available but their favourite food is invertebrate and especially leatherjackets – the larvae of crane flies. Starlings nest in holes and crevices in trees or buildings. It will be interesting to see whether the spread of the accidentally introduced ring-necked parakeet, now well-established and common as a breeding species in S W London, Surrey and elsewhere, has any effect on their population in years to come since these birds will be in direct competition with starlings for nest sites and are likely to come out on top.

Chaffinch – Fringilla coelebs

A male Chaffinch taken in Flight by Rhys Haden in April 2008

I broke off from writing this to check the bird feeder at the front of the house. The finches in this neighbourhood seem to have worked out a mutually beneficial arrangement. Greenfinches are most adept at hanging on to feeders and extracting the seeds and the chaffinches here seem content to defer to them. But there is method in this since greenfinches are very messy eaters, spilling as many seeds as they eat. All the chaffinches have to do, therefore, is wait underneath for the inevitable shower of effortless food. There were as many as 20 there just now, making good use of the labour of just three of four greenfinches. Other species profit too, since the hangers-on beneath the feeder usually include woodpigeons, collared doves, blackbirds and an assortment of others. Unlike chaffinches, however, none of these is capable of extracting food from the feeder so the benefit they derive comes at no cost at all!

The chaffinch is perhaps the most widespread and abundant bird in Britain, being found virtually everywhere except in the most densely populated urban centres. In many places it has become quite tame, happily taking crumbs from the tables in pub gardens and even from your hand if you have a little patience. Like almost all other finches, chaffinches feed their young on invertebrates rather than seed. Both sexes have a white wing bar, which is very visible in flight. Males have a pinkish breast and a blue head and nape.

Chaffinch song is everywhere in Kingston at the moment; short and cheerful with a final flourish that I at least think of as “der-diddy-der”! While this is to be heard only during the breeding season, they also have a variety of other calls, the most common of which is usually written as “pink” or the far less politically correct “chink”. This can sound like one of the many call notes of the great tit. It would be far easier if bird calls were more distinctive but much less fun for those of us who spend so much fruitless time trying to work out what is saying what!

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