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Move Over Starling

17/12/2020

Midwinter mystery solved as starling murmurings cause power trips.

A small village in Scotland has been at the centre of a series of mysterious interruptions to its power supply with engineers at SP Energy Networks at a loss to explain the reason why.

Regular checks on the power lines and investigations into the incidents by experts in Airth all saw no issues to report with the trips, which affected around 50 homes locally, some only lasting minutes at a time.

With incidents often happening at dusk, lead district engineer Neil McDonald set out to investigate while on his way home and what he found stunned his colleagues back at base.

A swooping mass of thousands of birds akin to the sights seen on a David Attenborough programme were dancing around and on the overhead power cables causing them to bounce – and power to trip – in response.

Neil managed to capture the whole spectacle – known as a starling murmuration – on camera and wowed his SP Energy Network colleagues.

Ross Galbraith, District General Manager said: “It’s completely breath-taking to watch, although not something we’ve ever experienced before. There’s been several unexplained outages around dusk in recent weeks but given the work we’ve been doing to make sure our network is resilient ahead of winter, we haven’t been able to get to the bottom of it until now.

“Our teams have been gearing up for the winter weather ahead and we are acutely aware of how much more time people spend at home in the current environment, and how crucial power supplies are to those who rely on still being able to work effectively and carry out other essential daily tasks.

“We’re already ‘storm ready’ for the months ahead and have been working really hard this year to improve the resilience of supplies in this particular area too. This is certainly a new challenge in that regard, but now we’ve discovered what our feathered friends have been up to, we can work with the appropriate experts to keep the lights on and power flowing to those living nearby.”

Neil added: “It was a mass aerial stunt by these amazing birds and in all my 14 years working for SPEN, I have never seen anything like it. For all the birds looked small, the sheer number of them caused the wires to bounce up and down as they danced on and off – there’s actually three wires between those poles and when they clash together, the power will go off for around 10 seconds or so at a time. That’s what’s been happening quite frequently, with some of these clashes causing wider damage and longer outages.

“We’re looking at ways to discourage them from impacting our power lines and will work with the RSPB for the best advice. We’ve successfully managed to move on roosting geese in the past so hopefully our starling community can be encouraged to safely relocate somewhere that doesn’t impact our power supplies, and local communities, quite so much.”

It is thought starlings behave in this way for several reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands and starlings are thought to be most vulnerable at twilight.

They also gather to keep warm at night, hunker down together and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas. They gather over their roosting site and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night.

Toby Wilson, RSPB Scotland’s Senior Conservation Officer for Central Scotland commented: “Starling murmurations are one of the great spectacles of the natural world and can be enjoyed across the UK during the autumn and winter months. I have heard of one or two instances of them causing local issues with power lines but this is the first I am aware of in this area.

“Unfortunately, starling murmurations are becoming a rarer sight, as starling numbers have suffered serious declines over the past few decades due to loss of habit and changing farming techniques affecting food supplies. We have a good relationship with SP Energy Networks and have worked together before, although never on a fantastic spectacle such as this. Obviously, we recognise the need to maintain energy networks and hope the birds can be sensitively encouraged to relocate to a suitable, nearby site. We are happy to work with SP Energy Networks to advise on this.”

Methods to move starlings on normally involve playing loud artificial noise to put them off roosting in a specific location, including sounds of predators like sparrowhawks.

SP Energy Networks is also reminding all customers ahead of the winter season to ensure they keep the national 105 emergency powercut number close to hand so they can call them if their power does go out unexpectedly – no matter who they pay their bill to. They are also promoting other essential safety advice to ensure customers are storm-ready, such as, storing a battery powered torch at home, being extremely careful to avoid fallen power lines and keeping their mobile phones charged to help them should a power cut occur.

Watch the Starling footage –

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