Driving through Ripon, North Yorkshire last week, Hayley Blaymires was surprised to see thousands of birds fly in spectacular formations across the sky.
She had heard people speak of starling murmurs, which this year had been unusually happening near the center of Ripon, but this was the first time she had seen them for herself.
Blaymires was so impressed that the next night she took her two sons, ages three and five, to see them too.
“It was fascinating,” he said. “The kids thought it was great and we rolled down the windows so they could hear them chirping as they approached. More birds joined in and it got bigger as we watched it, making nice swirl patterns and changing direction. There were a lot of ‘wow’s’.
Blaymires and his family are not alone this year seeing whispers for the first time. Sightings reported in February were higher than in previous months and above expected levels for the time of year, according to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). This is despite travel restrictions that make data collection difficult.
Thousands of images and videos have appeared across social media as members of the public appear to encounter the natural phenomenon.
BTO’s Paul Stancliffe said that more people might be seeing murmurs than usual because there may simply be more starlings here.
In late autumn, many colder climate starlings migrate to the UK. The current spike in sightings coincides with a cold snap in Russia last month, where temperatures reached a staggering -40C (-40F).
Stancliffe said: “Those who make up these huge murmurs will contain some of our breeding birds, but the vast majority will be birds from western Russia and eastern Europe escaping from that cold.”
RSPB’s Martin Fowlie said the whispering may have attracted more attention this year because people don’t have as many distractions from the lockdown.
He said: “I suspect that people are paying more attention than before. The time we spend outdoors is more valuable and I think people are noticing these things more than before. “
However, Fowlie cautioned that the wavy masses could give a false impression: “The sight is amazing, but people should not be fooled into thinking that there are large numbers of these birds. Starlings are on the red list. “
The numbers have fallen dramatically, by 68% between 1993 and 2018, according to the BTO, and conservationists are encouraging people to put boxes of starlings in their gardens.
Stancliffe estimates that there are still a few weeks of the year to see murmurs before large numbers of birds fly east again.
“The breeding season has actually started for some species, but for starlings it will be a bit longer still,” he said. “By the end of this month, many of those gossip will have dissipated.”
Although no one knows for sure, ornithologists believe that these impressive aerobatics help starlings stay warm, repel predators, and exchange information about good foraging areas.
The largest and most well-known refuges are at Brighton Pier, Gretna Green, on the border between England and Scotland, and the Ham Wall nature reserve in Somerset, but starlings can be found almost everywhere in the UK except in parts highest in the Scottish Highlands.
Stancliffe said, “Maybe an hour before dark, take a walk around your neighborhood. They’re really obvious if they’re there, and it doesn’t take a lot of starlings to put together an impressive show.
It may be something in your city or village that you have never noticed before. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism