Starlings’ aerial antics behind mystery of Scots’ power outages

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The mystery surrounding a string of unexplained power cuts across a small town in Scotland has been solved after video footage revealed the culprits – starlings dancing on power lines.

The birds’ murmurations are thought to be behind the baffling spate of evening blackouts in Airth, their combined mass bouncing the overhead electricity lines and causing the power to trip.

Their antics were discovered by Neil McDonald, a lead engineer at Scottish Power, who had been left stumped by the unexplained outages after regular checks on the overhead lines. He solved the mystery after setting out to investigate the power lines on an evening walk, and used a camera phone to capture the spectacle for his colleagues.

“In all my 14 years working for SP energy networks 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,” he said.

Thousands of birds weighed down the lines each time they landed en masse, he explained. The murmuration would set off in unison, causing the lines to clash together and trigger an outage.

“There’re 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,” he said.

About 50 local homes were mysteriously left without electricity for minutes at a time, with no explanation for the cause of the temporary blackouts.

Starlings taking time out during the day on an electricity cable, Hampshire, UK.

Ross Galbraith, Scottish Power district manager, said: “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 hadn’t been able to get to the bottom of it until now.

“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 keep power flowing to those living nearby.”

Scottish Power’s energy networks division plans to work with conservationists at RSPB to investigate how they could discourage the starlings from including the overhead power lines in their evening dance.

“It’s completely breathtaking to watch, although not something we’ve ever experienced before,” McDonald said.

“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.”

Toby Wilson, a conservation officer at RSPB, said: “Obviously, we recognise the need to maintain energy networks and hope the birds can be sensitively encouraged to relocate to a suitable nearby site.

“Unfortunately, starling murmurations are becoming a rarer sight, as starling numbers have suffered serious declines over the past few decades due to loss of habitat and changing farming techniques affecting food supplies.”

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