I’m still stuck on the Forth Road Bridge. Searching for news of the starlings that used to roost in their thousands on the south side of the bridge I stumble upon unexpected human activities higher up.
Round about the time I was posting last week’s blog on the anniversary of the ‘Silver Highway’, the band Bwani Junction was playing an adventurous acoustic gig for bridge staff pretty much where I had stood on the parapet between the twin towers 24 years ago. Take a look at their YouTube video, it’s a great (if scary) experience.
The band have clearly made a close bond with the bridge and will be headlining the Bridgestock festival next year as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations. But what about the starlings? The story twists and turns.
Must admit I don’t know if the starlings made this kind of spectacular display as they came home to roost on the bridge – murmuration is the poetic name for those swooping miracles at sunset. At first, my online searches turned up some contradictory findings. One forum suggests they have gone elsewhere, other reports just repeat facts of yesteryear.
Starlings certainly used to be a big problem for the bridge’s maintenance department. My behind-the-scenes visit in 1989 ended with entertaining stories of all kinds of imaginative attempts to dislodge the birds. Droppings made a kind of poultice on the metal, harmless in itself but harbouring moisture which could corrode.
‘We’ve tried everything’. Bruce Grewar, then Bridgemaster, told me. Distress calls of starlings amplified along the bridge, strobe lights, bird-scarers, rattling the steel, dummy birds of prey. Nothing moved them. ‘They are very determined birds.’ There was more:
A particular frequency of strobe light which drove a poor budgie demented had the spine-chilling effect of inducing the starlings to rise up in a kind of silent Hitchcock attack on the Bridgemaster and his assistant. Bird scarer bangs made them rise up. And settle right back down again – long after the bang stopped, the starlings were still conditioned to rise in a simultaneous jump.
Where are they now? I sent a tweet (well, what else?) to @Forthroadbridge followed by an old fashioned email to the press office. Here’s their prompt response:
We did have problem with starlings many years ago; however a scaring programme was implemented every autumn for approximately 8 weeks which was successful in alleviating the problem. This success combined with a general reduction in the starling population has resulted in us reducing the length of the scaring programme each year. I think it’s fair to say we have a bigger problem with pigeons these days!
Meanwhile, I found a beautifully evocative piece in the Scotsman by Peter Ross who had spent a sunset at Gretna marvelling at the Solway murmuration (Birds of a Feather). Peter refers to the Forth Road Bridge starlings in the past tense, pointing out that these extraordinary birds are no longer common or garden: ‘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.’
Since starlings are dwindling on the Firth of Forth let’s hope the Solway (and the good people of Gretna) can continue to support them. To see why we can’t afford to lose them, take a look at this beautiful video by Islands and Rivers. A chance encounter with a murmuration is enough to make you laugh with joy. Unless, of course, you are a bird scarer.