Starling records greatest loss of any European farmland bird
With its cheeky nature and chirpy, chattering song, and dotty iridescent feathers, the starling is one of our most recognizable birds, but figures show that 40 million starlings have disappeared from the European Union, including the UK, since 1980.
In Kent, starlings have declined by 69% over the past two decades.
This crash is triggering concern about the bird’s future status as a widespread and familiar bird.
The RSPB’s stepping up action to help starlings with a research project to see why the UK’s flocks are in freefall. In 2002, the starling was added to the UK ‘red list’ of the Birds of Conservation Concern, because its population had halved during the previous three decades.
Each winter, birds arriving from continental Europe boost the UK’s starling numbers. There is evidence of a decline in the number of starlings visiting the UK in winter, and this could be linked to the decline elsewhere in Europe.
The RSPB’s Dr Richard Gregory heads up the Society’s bird monitoring section. Commenting on the starling’s decline, he said: “The starling is still a plentiful bird, but its numbers are falling alarmingly.”
Starling numbers recorded in the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch have fallen by 80% since 1979 across the UK. In Kent, while they are still the second most recorded bird in the county, this year an average of 4.5 birds were seen per garden, compared to 12 birds recorded per garden in 1991.
Dr Gregory added: “Our records show that we have lost more starlings across Europe than any other farmland bird. Forty million starlings lost represents over 150 for every hour since the 1980s. This loss should be a wake-up call, because we ignore the decline of nature at our own peril.”
Dr Will Peach, who is leading the research into the starling decline in the UK, said: “It is figures like these which have convinced us of the need for action, which is why we are launching a research programme to unravel the mystery of this bird’s disappearance.”
There have been several theories put forward to explain the starling’s decline. In parts of Europe, suggestions include the loss of grassland through conversion to forestry land and the growing of crops. But these changes haven’t affected the UK in the same way, so the reasons for the rapid contraction in the UK are not understood
Working in Somerset and Gloucestershire, RSPB researchers will be working with farmers to examine whether there is sufficient food and nesting sites for starlings in livestock areas.
Starlings feed by probing lawns and pastures with their longish bills, looking for soil invertebrates, including leatherjackets. These leatherjackets – cranefly larvae – are widely regarded as pests, so starlings provide a good service for farmers and gardeners. Part of the study will examine the food supply of these pastures to assess whether starlings can find sufficient food.
The loss of farmland birds from the UK, and Europe, is a major conservation concern. To stem and reverse these declines, the RSPB carries out scientific research to establish the reasons why farmland birds are declining, and then its scientists try to find ways that farmers can help by providing the measures that birds need to survive.
The Common Agricultural Policy guides the future of Europe’s farming. Negotiations are currently under way to reform the CAP. The RSPB and its European partners would like to see a better result for wildlife from the negotiations.
Fay Pattinson, Agricultural Projects Officer for RSPB South East said, “The loss of farmland birds is yet another example of Europe’s wildlife paying a high price for unsustainable farming policies. We know that many farmers would like to help farmland wildlife and we would like to see an increase in the amount of money that’s available to those farmers to help them protect our UK wildlife.”