Some thirty years ago, visitors to the cinemas of Leicester Square were warned to carry a copy of the Evening Standard with them — as protection.

Not from aggressive newspaper sellers, but from aerial bombardment from around 100,000 starlings who had taken to nesting in the trees and building alcoves of that green square, and birds being birds, hadn’t been potty trained.

A regular rain of little white droppings descended upon the heads of film fans, who had taken to carrying a copy of the London newspaper over their heads as protection.

But now, visit the square, and the murmuration of the starlings has long since gone, shuffled off to the coils of myth and ancient memory.

For while the starling is widespread in Europe, as with many birds in the UK, it has seen its local population plummet.

London’s film fans might be forgiven for blessing the end of the nightly bombardment, the vast flocks of chattering birds sweeping over the countryside as they seek a roost for the night is one of nature’s great marvels, even if one to observe from the side as opposed to underneath it.

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The starling as a London bird was however, a fairly short lived affair with the city.

The birds started to appear en-mass in the city around the end of the 19th century, and there was for a while a lengthy correspondence in the Times in 1894 about their arrival in St James Park.

One fan of the birds, a Digby Pigott noted in a letter that the sight of so many birds in the park in the evening was a delight — even if he then commented that firing a gun at them brought down a dozen birds so closely packed were they.

His gunshot couldn’t have been that effective though, as starlings were still massing in the park some 35 years later, where Duck Island was seen to be their preferred roosting location. in the park, although not in winter, when they seemed to prefer buildings — possibly for the warmth.

A Mr Wilson in 1931 commented that most of the Starlings passing over London were flying between rural feeding grounds, and the birds roosting overnight in the city were the older ones who couldn’t make the 15-20 mile flight in one day, and that the numbers were growing as London expanded and pushed the boundaries of rural England ever further away.

The British Museum was less charitable, bemoaning the cost of cleaning their facade after the starlings took a fancy to it during WW1 for some reason, and were not successfully evicted until the 1930s.

A study by Mr E M Nicholson in the 1940s found that the starlings had an odd preference for roosting amongst the stone acanthus leaves of Corinthian columns that decorate the exterior of so many classical buildings. Maybe that’s why the Starlings left the British Museum — its frontage is lined with Ionic Columns.

Of course, the starlings gained notoriety when in August 1949 a flock of them decided to rest on the minute hand of Big Ben causing it to lose 5 minutes as the clock mechanism couldn’t overcome the weight of the birds.

By the 1950s, the sight of vast clouds of starlings swooping around central London was a common sight — mostly at winter, although that was mainly due to night fall occurring at the same time as commuters headed home. The birds just waited until later in the evening during summer, when there were fewer office workers around to notice.

However, by the 1980s, the starling was starting to be seen more as a nuisance than a delightful sight. Cars parked under trees could be pebbledashed in a single night. People wandering through parks could swiftly come to rue the decision.

And then it all stopped.

Between the 1980s and 2000, the starling population of London collapsed. Utterly.

A decade ago I moved to a flat in docklands, and when I put out bird feed, hardly a starling was to be seen. When I moved away, there was an undeniable flock swooping up to grab food and chatter animatedly between themselves on the balcony.

They left a mess, which was easy to clean up with the mop, and significantly easier to clean than that left by the feral pigeon.

Today we bemoan the presence of that avian chav, the pigeon, which was barely known in London at the start of the 19th century, and has since taken to the city with gusto, as it has in many cities.

Curiously, the pigeon population is not that large — it’s just far more noticeable as the birds tends to hang around where lazy humans discard food, and their physically larger size makes them easier to spot.

As the newly elected Mayor of London, one of Ken Livingstone’s early acts was to ban feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

The nightly downpour from starlings was once decried, but I think I would prefer their nightly chatter over the sight of fat pigeons fighting over a discarded chicken in a box.

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Whats's on in London: today or tomorrow or this weekend

5 comments on “The missing murmurations of Leicester Square
  1. Steve says:

    I’ve heard that on the evening of the premiere of Hitchcock’s The Birds, as the audience exited Hitchcock had someone fire a gunshot so that all the starlings were started into flight. I’ve no idea if it was true or just an apocryphal story, but I so hope it was, would have been a great sight.

  2. E says:

    Another great post! I love the variety you give us!

  3. Antonio Rodríguez says:

    I live in Zamora, a small city with a population of about 60,000 in Castilla, Spain. Here, pigeons have become a plague in the last years, not only because the reasons you note, but because their depositions and dead bodies clog the gutters, and they use to move and remove the tiles from the buildings’ rooftops (as you know, in Spain most buildings have their roofs covered with Arabic o Roman style tiles). The problem is even greater in the city’s center, because of the damage that they cause to old and historic buildings, many of them dating from the Middle Ages. As far as I know, other Castillian cities have the same problems, and many have banned feeding pigeons, too.

    These troubles (and the pigeons’ habit of feeding from discarded food) have made us refer to pigeons as “winged rats” or “flying rats”. It’s a bit cruel, but I think they have earned it!

  4. Katy says:

    A couple if years ago there was a flock if starlings under Tower Bridge. Haven’t been there at sunset to see if they are still there.

  5. Mark Joseph says:

    When I was younger, Starlings did this over the centre of London every winter. I remember standing in Leicester square watching them. The noise rose above all other sounds. Tourists would be exasperated by the spectacle. An older friend told me that in earlier years they used to fly through the arches of the big railway stations en-masse too! Now there are so few it doesn’t happen anymore. I find that makes me quite emotional. My son will never see it.

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