On this day in history : 12th August 1949 – A flock of starlings take roost on the minute hand on one of the clock faces of Big Ben, slowing it down by four and a half minutes….

Photo credit : Pierre Selim CC BY-SA 3.0

Listeners to the BBC’s 9 O’Clock News were surprised to hear the bullet-in start without the customary chimes of Big Ben…. Later in the broadcast the BBC announced that “swarms of starlings are sitting on the hands holding them back”….

That evening the flock had decided the clock hand would make a good perch for the night and their combined weight had slowed the clock down so it was unable to chime at the correct time…. However, by midnight everything was ‘back to normal’….

There was a time when the Capital was home to many flocks of starlings – who gave an impressive show with their murmurations…. To see starlings take to the sky in this way is one of nature’s most spectacular wonders…. The numbers were at their largest in the winter months when the birds joined forces to keep warm at night….

Starling murmuration

Sadly the starlings left London and in fact numbers across the whole of the UK are down by 70%…. Once such a common bird they are now on the critical red list…. Loss of permanent pasture, an increase in the use of chemicals, a shortage of food and nesting sites are all contributing factors…. The expansion of London itself pushes the birds further and further afield….

Incidentally, Big Ben was to run slow once again on New Year’s Eve 1962…. Snow jammed the north face clock and ice coated the minute hand….causing New Year to be rung in 10 minutes late…. To think Big Ben survived the Blitz – yet can be hampered by a bit of snow or a flock of birds….

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