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Count your starling blessings

By Dúlra

It’s a bird that many people have in their gardens, but to be truthful, few appreciate. Starlings are noisy, aggressive and certainly aren’t house-proud when it comes to building a nest.
They’re common – at the last count there were half a million of them in Ireland – but for some reason they have just never taken to Dúlra’s estate.
You’ll find them in gardens all around Belfast along with their wee chums the house sparrows, but not in Dúlra’s house or in any of his neighbour’s. Is it because the houses were built with no cavities for them to nest in?
Whatever the reason, Dúlra has been heartened in the last fortnight to find flocks of starlings landing in the trees and rooftops all around.
Many (lucky) people take the starling, druid in Irish, for granted because they are so common. But they really are beautiful and unique birds with their shiny-spotted coats and incessant singing.
The latest visitors must be migrants. It’s still relatively mild in places like Sweden and Norway, where most of our winter birds come from. Many of the birds from these countries stay put until they are forced to flee ahead of the storms.
At this time of year Dúlra keeps an eye on the weather over Scandinavia more than he does at home – because when winter finally bites over there, we’ll be treated with a magical, colourful influx days later.
Dúlra’s hunch – completely groundless, of course – is that these starlings are Scottish and have taken the short trip across the Irish Sea. Several flocks of around 20 each have been circling the rooftops, before landing on treetops or aerials.
Yesterday, Dúlra was in the garden when one flock came down right beside him and they all gathered, chirping giddily, in the palm tree. Dúlra considers this cordyline (its proper name) his lucky tree because it was the only one to survive the great frost a few years back – in fact it was one of the few survivors in the whole of Belfast. Because it is snuggled between two walls at the back of the house, this tropical plant had just enough protection on when all its other cousins perished.
The starlings certainly seemed to like it, playing with each other among the thick fronds.
Then a whooshing sound was heard over Dúlra’s right shoulder. He turned his head to see a sparrowhawk flying at full speed in the direction of the palm tree. It was so close that he could see its brown back and white, barred chest. In a millisecond it had smashed into the palm leaves with a clatter.
The 20 starlings burst into the air like a pod of seeds exploding, all flying in different directions, some into each other, in panic. In a few seconds they had regrouped and were heading over the rooftop – probably in the direction of Scotland!
Dúlra was sure the sparrowhawk must have had one unfortunately tourist in its talons. But, incredibly, it had missed. It floated out of the tree a minute later without its prey. This was certainly a lucky tree for the starlings.
Seeing a flock of starlings in his garden had been a rare treat; seeing a sparrowhawk attacking them was rarer still.
Any hopes of the starlings staying at his home and building a nest in the spring now seem even more remote. And maybe the neighbourhood sparrowhawk has more to do with the absence of starlings – and sparrows – than a lack of cavities for them to nest in.
If you’ve spotted anything interesting or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.

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