GORDON rubs his chin, stumped for an answer, and places his pint back on the bar of the Gretna Inn.
“Davey!” he shouts to a white-haired old man sitting, nursing an ale, in a dim corner. “Davey, how many years has the starlings been coming?”
“Aw, yonks,” says Davey. “They’ve been here since I was a boy, and that’s a long time.”
In the pubs of Gretna, in the schools and shops and pews, they talk about the starlings which, between November and February, at dusk, darken the skies in great swirling clouds, tens of thousands strong, known as murmurations. “They’re always out at about four o’clock,” says Lauren, a young woman who works behind the counter in WH Smith at Gretna motorway services. “I was walking up the High Street yesterday and it was like zombies. Everyone was stood still just looking up at them.”
To those of us who see photographs of this phenomenon, the starlings seem wondrous enough. To the people of Gretna, it is a little bit of everyday magic and an important seasonal marker; the shrill call of the birds sounds, to them, like the squeaking hinge of the changing year. I was keen to witness the murmuration for myself, so set off south from Glasgow on a dry day between two downpours.
Glasgow, by the way, once had its starling display, an estimated two and a half million of them swooping through the gloaming above the City Chambers and the Central Station. But the council, in its wisdom, saw them off during the 1960s and 1970s, frightening them with loudspeakers, flashing lights and, memorably, a piper playing on Jamaica Bridge. Edwin Morgan, in 1968, wrote a poem about these efforts, in which he described the birds’ “sweet frenzied whistling” and asked: “I wonder if we really deserve starlings?” Edinburgh, too, was known at one time for the birds. The cables of the Forth Road Bridge were black with starlings, and there was a great roost at Leith from the 1950s through to the 1970s; commuters heading home after a day’s work would see thousands high above the city’s crooked skyline, great flocks making for the docks.
A starling weighs little on its own, but in sufficient numbers they can cause significant damage to trees and buildings. The most famous incident occurred on 12 August, 1949, when listeners to the nine o’clock news were surprised not to hear the chimes of Big Ben. Starlings roosting on the minute hand had caused the clock to run four minutes slow. There is something delicious about this idea, starlings being so punctual in their habits.
If we now see far fewer starlings in our cities then this is because there are fewer everywhere. There are thought to be about four million starlings in the UK, a decrease of 80 per cent in 40 years. They are now on the critical list of birds most at risk. The causes of this steep decline are not understood fully, though it is believed to be related to intensive farming methods and changes in architecture; most buildings constructed these days lack the nooks starlings love.
In the early afternoon, when I arrive in Gretna, the Solway starlings are nowhere to be seen. They will still be outwith the town, in the fields and moors and on the coastal strand. Starlings travel up to 20 miles from their feeding grounds to their evening roosts. There are, however, plenty of clues for those who seek their flight path. Down a quiet cul-de-sac, not far from the Gateway shopping centre, Raymond Park, 74, is up a stepladder wiping white streaks from his windows. “Starlings?” he says. “Hellish. They come over here as it’s getting dark, thousands of them, going to that bit of wood over there. Do I like them? No. They may be a nice enough sight, but there’s an awfa lot of shite to clean.”
This is a familiar lament. The starlings of Gretna are loved best by those who do not own property directly beneath where they fly. That said, the Reverend Bryan Haston, minister of Gretna Old Parish Church, is a model of Christian forgiveness: even though roosting starlings killed three large conifers in the manse garden, he still likes them. “It’s quite amazing,” he says, “to look up late in the day and see the lovely patterns they make in the sky.”
On Croft Road, 25-year-old Steph Nixon laughs when I ask about the starlings and points to the spattered Vauxhall Vectra in her drive. “Oh, it’s a nightmare,” she says. “I’ve given up cleaning my windows, and I can’t put a washing out at all. We have to time our run into the house from the car, and when they are overhead it comes down so hard it sounds like it’s raining above the conservatory.”
At approximately 2.30pm, I spot my first starling – a gallus chap atop the church tower, perhaps one of those vandals that did for the minister’s conifers. Starlings are underrated. They appear drab at first, a plainly dressed beauty unnoticed at a busy dance. But when they catch the light, one sees the iridescent purples and greens, like oil in water, and the pearly feather tips. In the golden winter sunlight they are especially beautiful, clicking and chittering in the sycamores above the bus shelter and from Gretna’s red-brick chimneys.
Isobel Tranter, head of the community council and owner of a B&B, likes to watch them flock from her lounge. They are, she says, mesmerising. Already, there is some evidence tourists are being drawn to Gretna by spectacle. Isobel’s husband Philip, a driving instructor, is a great admirer of the birds, though he is concerned by the numbers of people pulling over at the side of the roads to take photographs. “I don’t mean to sound like David Attenborough,” he says, “but what’s going on here, with the starlings and the barnacle geese, it’s almost as if nature is making a comeback.”
As 4pm nears, anxiety rises. Will this be the day when, for whatever reason, the birds choose not to perform? Then, suddenly, it happens. The starlings are in the air. One hundred, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, 50, 60, 70 thousand. The murmuration grows all the time as new flocks join from every direction. And that gorgeously apt word, murmuration, is part of the appeal. Its earliest known usage is in The Book Of St Albans, published in 1485, where – as “a murmuracion of stares” – it is one of several collective nouns set out in a treatise on hunting.
Murmuration, certainly, expresses rather well the sound made by so many starlings as they pass overhead. What you hear, more than their song, is the shush of their wings – like a whole town’s whispered secrets.
The way they move is astonishing. Twisting, massing, diffusing, seeming to move as one creature, never ever colliding. The starling cloud is hundreds of feet wide and about a hundred feet deep. The mind reaches for metaphors – a shoal of fish, a spreading stain, television static; observed through the binoculars they resemble bacteria under a microscope. Describing a murmuration has given pause to several poets and novelists. John Clare, who knew them as starnels, wrote in the 1830s that they “darken like a clod the evening sky”. Coleridge, on 27 November, 1799, looked out from a coach heading for London as vast flights formed arcs and orbs, “glimmering and shivering, dim and shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening”. George Orwell, on 5 November, 1939, while hard at work in his Hertfordshire garden, watched tens of thousands of starlings fly overhead with a noise of heavy rain.
No-one knows for sure why the starlings do this; the consensus among ornithologists is that it is to somehow deter birds of prey. However, watching the murmuration it is difficult to escape the perhaps wrongheaded conclusion that the starlings take great pleasure and some pride in their display. Joy is the word that springs to mind. Certainly, the sight increases the joy of Scott and Claire Staszek, a young couple from Dunfermline, who married in Gretna earlier that day and break off from their wedding meal, in the Solway Lodge Hotel, to step outside and admire the starlings as they swirl, like dark confetti, above their heads. “Millions of them, eh?” says the father of the bride. “I’ve never seen so many thegither.”
Scotland is home to a summer population of 170,000-300,000 breeding pairs of starlings. But in the winter the population grows to between two and three million, as birds seeking a milder climate arrive from Russia, Scandinavia and the Baltic states. Similarly, birders will make significant journeys in order to see the starlings. At the side of the B7076, on the outskirts of Gretna, I meet Barry Jackson, 40, who has travelled here from Essex. He is a connoisseur of murmurations, having observed those at Brighton Pier and Minsmere. “But this is the best I’ve ever seen,” he says. “Absolutely spectacular.”
Sandy Gill, 62, taking photos from the side of the road, nods his agreement. “It’s a true wonder of nature.” He has made the short trip from Langholm twice this week and says he will be back again.
By half past four, it’s all over. As suddenly as they appeared, the starlings are gone, dropping from the sky as if in response to some telepathic signal, funnelling downwards into a small wood at the side of the Gretna Gateway. Inside, in the dying light, the noise is extraordinary, a ceaseless trebly pulse, almost electronic in character, and the birds are just visible in silhouette on the trees, strange fruit on laden branches.
Soon it will be dark and only the noise – and the memory – will remain. «