Startling starlings - A Bristol Murmuration takes flight this weekend

The installation by Bristol artist Zoë Cameron, which is a response to declining starling numbers throughout the UK, comprises over 1,000 locally made clay birds which will soar over Durdham Downs.

How to help starlings

Starlings feed in low grass, so keep a strip of lawn in your garden where they can catch food. 
Put out food (such as mealworms or fatballs) but remember to wash your bird feeders every so often to prevent diseases. 
Soft fruits always go down well, so you could even plant something for them to feed on, like an elder tree.
Small bowls of water are a cheap way of encouraging birds to your garden.

According to the RSPB, starling numbers have dropped by 80% since 1979.  

In response to the stark decline in starling numbers, Bristol artist Zoë Cameron conceived of A Bristol Murmuration, an ambitious initiative for 1,000 residents to each create a clay starling. 

People of all ages were invited from Henleaze, Stoke Bishop, and Westbury-on-Trym to participate in the Neighbourhood Arts Programme project, and the starlings are now being gathered up into a massive installation on Durdham Downs, which will free to visit from 17 to 25 October.

While Zoë was researching different bird species in preparation for the project, she spoke to a lot of Bristolians who remember watching starling murmurations over Temple Meads and on the Downs. 

However, as people told her, “You don’t really see them that much anymore”. 

Zoë Cameron's visualisation of the installation

Murmuration taps into a widespread resurgence of interest in nature, by bringing people together in a simple way.

Birds in general, Zoë observes, are a very accessible subject for a community art project: they are symbolic, everyone has some emotional connection to them, and a lot of people enjoy bird watching to a greater or lesser extent. 

On a more practical level, the bird shape is hugely recognisable. 

“All you need is a beak and wings”, said Zoë. 

Zoë wanted the project to include as wide a range of ages as possible, and people from one to ninety have created starlings for the installation. 

She was also keen to involve as many of the local green spaces in the project as possible, to which end she facilitated workshops across nature reserves, parks, church yards, and even pub gardens. 

The response from the community has been spectacular. 

“It’s beyond anything I could have imagined,” Zoë remarks. 

The local residents have been hugely excited and receptive to the project, with queues of people waiting gingerly for the chance to participate and create their own piece of the murmuration. 

Care home residents who made starlings were delighted to have a different kind of project to work on and commented on how relaxing and even therapeutic the activity was. 

The local brick factory, Ibstock Brick Ltd at Cattybrook, donated the clay for the starlings and fired them with their bricks, thereby helping to keep the project energy efficient and environmentally friendly. 

The project has inspired a lot of people because, as Zoë observes, it is all about “creating something that people can be a part of, something that people can feel is bigger than themselves”.

The fact that the project has created a lot of excitement in the three wards involved is, for Zoë, a very positive step in itself: “It puts [the issue of starling decline] on people’s consciousness – it gets people talking about it.”

At its heart, Murmuration is all about celebrating diversity. 

Over 1,000 starlings have been made for the final installation, each different from the other – some very simple, some incredibly detailed – but, when they are eventually brought together, they will all benefit from each other. 

In a time when so many things are standardised and mass produced, when some things are considered “wrong” and others “right”, the installation brings together vastly different birds, each carrying its own charm, all different but equally valid. 

Some of the clay birds made by local people

Zoë hopes that, for people who spot Murmuration when strolling past, the work will “amplify how much beauty there is in diversity and individuality.”

The final installation will see the clay starlings atop individual hazel poles, brought together to create a sinuous formation of birds, silhouetted against the sky on Durdham Downs. 

As this was designed specifically to be a cross-generational project, the placement of the installation will symbolically link the old and new. 

It will be situated on an essential point between the three wards of Henleaze, Stoke Bishop, and Westbury-on-Trym, linking the old trees that have grown there for decades to a circle of newly planted scots pines. 

To celebrate the installation, there will be a procession to the birds on the morning of Saturday 17 October.

Join the Facebook event or visit bristolmurmuration.com to take part.

If you haven’t created a clay starling, downloade this template, complete with flapping wings, which you can use to make your own to bring it along. 

On Sunday 18 Oct, there will be a guided walk on the Downs with the Friends of the Downs and Avon Gorge, giving people the chance to learn some fascinating facts about starlings and other birds that can be found on the Downs.

You can book your spot on the guided walk for free by calling 0117 9030609, emailing mleivers@bristolzoo.org.uk, or visiting the Facebook event page.

 

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See also

Bristol's bird highway

A Bristol Murmuration Exhibition