Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Don't blame the Starling

 The Starling

There are about 200 million European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) in this country. The first arrived when a successful German-American determined that he could show off his wealth and sophistication. He did this by making a DIY project in 1890 and 1891 and specifically it was to introduce every bird mentioned in a Shakespeare drama to the United States. In his first year Eugene Schieffelin brought 60 of them to Central Park and the next year another 40. Now they number many millions and are everywhere in the contiguous states. They might be the species with the highest head count here.

A lot of people don’t like them; they are invasive. There are web sites devoted to denigrating this bird. But it is not their fault. The ancestral 100 that arrived here more than a century ago did not ask to be sailed across the Atlantic. They were content in their millions throughout Europe where they could do their murmurations. I have never heard of any such numbers of the starling in our country but they routinely do them in Europe. Smaller numbers I have seen here while it is the same routine, it has never been in the spectacular numbers as what can be viewed on You Tube. Recently I read an article about how birds prevent crashes while in the midst of events such the Starling murmuration. They always turn to the right and those of higher status fly below their lesser.  The article was not about Starlings but one can infer that perhaps the same applies to this species.

I was reading Lyandra Haupt’s book Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds some months ago and in it she suggested many things that spoke clearly to me but one brought me to write this article. Like me she is not interested in seeing all the birds in the world. There are those who go to great extremes to witness a species sighting for a moment, maybe long enough to photograph it. Sometimes according to Haupt the interloper will even disturb the bird in order to get a good view.

I like seeing new species but I have no scorecard to keep. An analogy that I have used regarding these efforts was also used by Haupt and that was to compare species sightings to collecting baseball cards. Like her, I am content getting to really know the birds that come into my routine. To that end I sort of followed one of her suggestions. That was to not look for “life birds”, the ones you see for the first time but rather really get to know the ones that are actually in your life. So I decided to pick the first bird that I saw the morning after completing the book and examine its behavior for the next year. I awoke the next morning to a European Starling and hence this article was born.

Several years ago I ventured onto a bridge that no longer exists in downtown Baltimore and from its vantage point I was able to photograph many birds, all of the Sturnus vulgaris family. It was the first time I actually looked at them closely noticing the golden color of their beaks during non-breeding season. More so I observed how actually beautiful they are and wrote a poem about them. In it I compared the golden dotted breast to the brocade on the kepi of a high military official. I have learned since that like the general, the Starling holds its ground. The poem got published in some offbeat internet journal. I no longer remember its name and cannot find it in the digital clutter of my hard drive though I would have liked to use it for this piece.

So here is what I learned or was reminded of during my watch. They are a bit larger than most of the birds that come for the seeds or suet that I offer. I leave those in the yard a short distance from my kitchen window so that I can observe one aspect of bird eating. It is a bit contrived since it doesn’t reveal what birds eat in the wild. However it provided me with some behavior insight.

Starlings flock to feeders and are not concerned with the food being suet or seed. When they descend on either feeder it is usually en masse and frightens all but the most intrepid (chickadees) off to safely wait their turn. Starlings also feed their young while the offspring is physically capable of hitting the feeders independently. Originally I imagined that once out of the nest, fledglings would fend for themselves. In the case of Starlings I found that was not so and witnessed parental feeding from my window on many occasions.

In 2014 in the midst of an unusually cold Mid Atlantic winter I observed that they will flock with many other species but could not help to notice that those other species were largely black in color. It is difficult to see from the photo below but amongst the grackles, red wing blackbirds, cowbirds (and I see two house sparrows), there is a Starling. My trees in the yard on that same day appeared as if they were bird trees with abundant black colored avian as the fruit.


Starlings are found everywhere in the lower 48 states and to accomplish that they must be omnivores. I see them mostly in urban settings eating much like pigeons and sparrows which means anything they find. Food for birds in a large city is quite easy to come by. People discard styrofoam trays of uneaten fries and chicken parts; even homeless people are seen tearing off the bread edges of sandwiches and tossing it the ground as bird feed. Urban birds like house sparrows, pigeons (rock doves actually) and Starlings make haste to take advantage of these leavings.

If you are gamboling in an agricultural area seeing Starlings dining on the fruits of what has been sown is common. In the woods they eat something, I suspect berries and insects. My guess is that they will eat small game such as newts or lizards but I have never seen that event.

They are a fairly raucous bird, making much noise especially if they are bothered by other species in their rather heartless and selfish endeavors like eating. I hear little of them while they are in the trees designing their next move. They occasionally do make much noise though, especially in non-breeding seasons.

So what I have witnessed is a bird that is very social, aggressive and an omnivore. There is much more to the Starling that I learned from reading. Since they hatch from eggs, let’s start with the nest. Like their eating, they pretty much will make a nest anywhere and sometimes don’t make one at all. When they do build one it is likely to be in a hollow such as an unused woodpecker hole or a bluebird house. In keeping with their careless (Carefree?) habits the nest is haphazard at best and like so many other urban omnivores, filthy. Their young learn about life in an environment that is not free of feces.

Below is an example of a Starling’s nest constructed in a bluebird box that has never guested a bluebird yet I find an annual nest built within the box.

They lay 4-5 eggs that are powder blue in color and while generally oval are not always the same exact shape, some are elongated while others are similar to the eggs one buys in the dairy section of the grocery store. They are not half the size of the chicken eggs that we eat though.

In the southwest of America Starlings are found to contain the banned DDT and so there is a higher likelihood of their having eggs whose structure is so weak that survival becomes endangered. It is unlikely that there will be a hue and cry amongst naturalists about this as the Starling will never be given endangered status since they are invasive (again, they had no say in their circumstance), and they are so plentiful. Imagine if on average they lay 5 eggs and 3 survive long enough to breed and their currently about 200 million of them, how long it will take for there to be 300 million of them? Few humans fret over the plight of the Starling.

While caring for the young both male and female Starling nurture the offspring during the day while only the female incubates or feeds during the night.

The eyes of Starlings approximate 15% of the weight of their head which is similar to that of most raptors. That advantage undoubtedly aids in finding food sources for the birds of prey but since Starlings are not particular about what they eat the evolutionary advantage leaves questions. It is my guess that it is an aid in protecting them from being prey. I don’t know though, it just seems likely that visual advantage must have some use and my suggestion seems as likely as another-at least from the perspective of an amateur.  

There is a lot more to know about what may be America’s most common bird. What I learned about its behavior is that the species is “generalist” in almost all regards. It eats anything, nests anywhere and its sexual displays vary widely. It roosts during non-breeding times, everywhere and with many other species which I have perceived without reading about them.

They can be taught to simulate many sounds like corvids and mockingbirds. Mozart kept a pet Starling for many years. There are many YouTube versions of what Starlings can be taught and they are impressive.  

New Years is nigh and I will be picking a new bird ala Haupt’s suggestion. I will count that new species once I get into the woods on January 1 because if I select the first bird I see out of my window it likely to be a Starling.



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