Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Erinna Mettler, author of Starlings, who has kindly agreed to delight the readers of Book After Book with tales from the unique city of Brighton (and Hove!)...
The Starling Stag Do
There are a few weeks left to catch one of Brighton’s most spectacular performances and the good thing is you don’t even have to buy a ticket. If you head down to Brighton Pier on any evening in winter you will see the beautiful ballet of our visiting starlings. The birds come down here from their breeding grounds in Scandinavia to sit out the winter in our relatively warmer climate. It’s like they’re on an extended stag weekend, taking a few months out on the town to eye up the talent, binge on the local produce and go dancing.
Every evening as day turns into dusk the birds congregate around the piers in huge groups much like those men and women with L-plates and fairy wings who throng the city’s streets. As the birds collect they begin to swirl across the skies in massive lava lamp shapes. The RSPB website says that essentially they’re eyeing each other up, looking at the birds nearest to them to see which ones are the fat, shiny, healthy-looking ones, so they can follow them to their feeding grounds the next day. They keep a beady eye on the nearest seven or so and change direction to take a look at different birds. That’s how the undulating happens. I love the fact that the course of one little bird can change the movement of the whole flock. The dominant birds roost further under the pier away from the wind and the sea-spray and everyone else wants to be near them, there are squabbles and peckings and a lot of screeching before they settle down for the night, the avian equivalent of DeNiro’s ‘you talkin’ to me?’ The more I find out about these birds the more they remind me of stags and hens. The expert from the RSPB says they are remarkably agile during the evening ballet but not so much in the morning hangover, when they are quite likely to bump into each other and plummet to the ground. Walk around the lanes on a Sunday morning and you’ll see much the same behaviour as the hungover emerge from their hotel rooms in search of a fry up.
I first saw the starlings in Brighton in the early 90s, when the West Pier was only half gone, sloping to one side like it was melting in the sun. There were millions of birds then, still able to roost in the pier’s ruins, they swarmed the skies like giant bees swaying this way and that as the sun set. You never forget your first time.
The colonisation of the West Pier didn’t last long. The birds sought out new shelter when they natural woodland habitat was destroyed by the middle of the last century. What better place than the old pier, away from humans and furnished with a million hiding places? But the starling population has dropped dramatically in the last 50 years, down by as much as 70 per cent (according to the RSPB) and in Brighton and Hove, whereas upwards of a million birds used to descend on us, now it’s only about 20,000. When the West Pier burned down they shifted along the coast to Brighton Pier and you can still watch them here throughout the winter months. Of course if they keep dwindling at the same rate you might not be able to for much longer. It’s this fleetingness that appeals to me, the idea that it’s a privilege to watch a natural occurrence that I have no control over, and might not be able to see next year, or the year after.
I asked friends for their thoughts on watching the starlings. Most people said they’d stumbled on the sight by accident, walking along the seafront at dusk, at first unaware of what they were witnessing then stopping in awe wasting an hour or so just watching. I play a game with my boys in which we shout out what the shapes look like as they change, it’s a bit like cloud watching but high octane – try it, it’s fun. One friend said she went to see the birds on her birthday and half expected them to spell out Happy Birthday for her. Someone else said they’d seen a lone starling pecking viciously at Kentucky Fried Chicken on the street – now that particular bird must have been on a stag do.
For more information on starlings visit http://www.rspb/org/uk and listen to The Ghost Roost BBC Radio 4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b019f9hf