The birds of Kilbeggan do battle every evening

Each evening, two avian armies descend on the village of Kilbeggan to confront each other, writes Richard Collins 

Kilbeggan, straddling the River Brosna in Co Westmeath, was founded by St Began, one of the ‘12 apostles of Ireland’. A licence to distil whiskey there was issued in 1757; Locke’s of Kilbeggan has the oldest working still in the world. The distillery museum is a major tourist attraction.

The Irish fought the Danes at Kilbeggan in 972. A son of the distillery owner was hanged following a skirmish during the 1798 rebellion. Now another conflict has erupted. Each evening, two avian armies descend on the village to confront each other. The combatants depart at dawn.

Museums have a lean time in winter; there are few visitors about. Not this year, however, in Kilbeggan. Like the spectators who gathered to watch the great set-piece battles of the Napoleonic Wars, birdwatchers and photographers arrive each evening to see the show. Local cafes and restaurants do a brisk trade.

Starling ‘murmurations’ occur throughout Ireland but this one is different. An avian drama, local people claim, is being enacted. I watched the show with my grandchildren on a blustery evening last week. Two hours before darkness fell, crows began gathering. They hung about in the poplar trees overlooking the distillery’s picturesque weir and antique water wheel.

Groups of stragglers flew in to join them. Crows have a routine before settling for the night; a ‘pre-roosting’ flock assembles on the ground. The Kilbeggan crows chose the side of a hill topped by the town’s old graveyard with its ruined tower. Then, in the fading light, they moved to their chosen roost site, a riverside clump of mature woodland. A military man would not, I think, be impressed by their manoeuvres. This was a disorganised rabble, not a disciplined fighting force.

By now, the first starlings had arrived, several hundred of them. Reinforcements flew in from all directions. Soon tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands wheeled about the sky, swooping towards the crows. No physical contact or wing-to-wing combat took place but the crows took off again, the jackdaws calling noisily, the rooks more silent. Greatly outnumbered, they fled to some mixed woodland a few hundred metres away.

The starlings, in contrast, flew with the precision of an airforce aerobatic team, each member of the ‘corps de ballet’ maintaining the regulation distance from its neighbours in disciplined tight formation. The gigantic flock wheeled about as a single organism. Following the avian equivalent of a victory roll, they dropped from the sky into the trees vacated by the crows.

Interpreting this as confrontation and power play might be anathema to a behavioural scientist. The crows, however, did seem to be responding to the presence of the starlings. But why would starlings and crows reject each other as bedfellows? Roosting together would surely provide addition warmth and security during winter nights. Rooks and jackdaws, among the most intelligent of birds, are bigger than starlings. How could they be intimidated by them?

There are, however, disadvantages to being a crow in situations such as this. Theirs is a hierarchical society; each bird seeks to rise in the peck-order, squabbling with ambitious rivals to become ‘top-dog’. No wonder crow flocks are untidy and disorganised. Like the Irish clans of old, internal rivalries may inhibit them from uniting in the face of invaders.

Unlike the crows, which are sedentary birds not far their own patch, the starlings are mostly winter visitors from abroad, some from as far away as Poland. With no stake in the local real estate, individuals don’t compete for land or position. Nor have they much regard for the damage they inflict on their chosen roosting sites.

Huge concentrations at Ballinafagh Lake in Co Kildare, decades ago, destroyed the reed beds on which they descended.Something similar may be happening now at Lough Ennell. Are starlings from there moving to Kilbeggan?


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