Birds of a feather flock together

During the last couple of months I have been plagued by sales calls from a company selling double-glazing. The automated sales pitch always begins with the words ‘winter is coming’. We have received so many of these calls that it has become a standing joke in our household – whenever the telephone rings, someone will say ‘oh no, winter is coming’.

While annoying, these calls have provided me with a regular reminder that the harshest months of the year are just around the corner. At this time, our wild birds spend most of the daylight hours in search of food, taking on enough resources to get them through the cold nights. Many of them flock together, roosting in a group with the aim of staving off the cold through shared body warmth.

Lots of birds will also flock during the day. By staying together, any food they find can benefit more than one individual. There is also safety in numbers. If a predator attacks, the confusion caused by the scattering flock can often result in an unsuccessful hunt.

The starling is one of those birds that flocks during the winter months and many of us will have seen TV clips of wheeling, flowing, shape-changing flocks of starlings as they prepare to enter a roost for the night. One of the largest starling roosts in the country can be found at Ham Wall in Somerset, but other impressive roosts occur on the piers at Aberystwyth and Brighton. For those further north, Gretna Green, close to the M6 services, holds a large roost, as does the River Lagan Bridge in Belfast, but if these super-roosts are too far away, smaller but still impressive roosts can and do occur in many of our towns and cities.

Bird of a feather 1 by Jill Pakenham
©Jill Pakenham

This season is shaping up to be a ‘waxwing winter’. As I write, there are already more than a thousand waxwings here, wandering the country in search of berries. Rowan seems to be their preferred choice but, as the winter progresses and these begin to run out, they can be found on ornamental berry-bearing shrubs and bushes in even the smallest of gardens. Being a Scandinavian breeder, they cross the North Sea to get here and arrive in the northeast, slowly filtering south and west as berries run short, in some winters reaching as far as Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Supermarket car parks are a great place to look out for these masked, crested wanderers, as the planting scheme in many of these includes lots of ornamental berry-bearing shrubs, bushes and trees.

Bird of a feather 3 by Waxwing
©John Harding

A winter isn’t complete for me without a visit or two to a pied wagtail roost, and my favourite is my local roost in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. It is right in the centre of the shopping area and I love visiting it when the Christmas decorations are up. Thousands of shoppers wander beneath the roosting tree, in front of the smallest pub in the world, mostly unaware that one of the best decorated trees in the town is just above their heads, glittering with at least 200 black-and-white feathery baubles. There are similar roosts by the main entrance to Heathrow Airport and in the middle of Sheffield. Other roosts occur in towns across the country; supermarket and hospital roofs are popular sites so it’s worth checking out any near you.

I can’t finish without mentioning rooks. These countryside crows can put on a display to equal that of the starling, and in equally impressive numbers. Spending the days out in the fields, rooks will gather in pre-roosts before heading off to the overnight roost just before dusk, some of which can easily contain up to 30,000 birds. One of the most famous roosts is at Buckenham Marshes in Norfolk, but others can be found at Hatton Castle, Aberdeenshire, at Northward Hill in Kent and at Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire, and there will be  many more smaller roosts across the country.

Bird of a feather 2 by John Harding

So, as the afternoon wears on and the light begins to fade, cast your eyes skywards – you might just see flocks of birds all flying determinedly in the same direction to a communal roost near you.

Magazine of the Ramblers