A European starling in its winter plumage. In summer the white spots disappear and they are a sleek, iridescent black.
This month’s blog I am sharing some more trail camera photos of my bird feeder. Specifically, I am going to talk about the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). As you can tell from the name this bird is not originally from North America. Starlings were introduced to North America in the 1800’s with the first successfully introduction documented in 1890, when approximately 80 starlings were released into New York City’s Central Park. Today there are an estimated 150 million starlings in North America (USDA), where the European starling is considered both an invasive and a nuisance species. Being highly adaptable and versatile they have expanded their range across all North America (Cornell). They are considered to be a nuisance species because they damage fruit crops, they congregate in concentrated animal feeding operations where they are believed to be disease vectors to livestock and they gather in large numbers in urban areas where their excrement can cover buildings and structures. Finally, they are thought to out-compete native bird species, especially bluebirds and others that use cavities for nesting locations (woodpeckers), possibly leading to declines in the populations of these native species (Cornell). However recent research suggest that even though they compete for nesting sites, they may not reduce the reproductive output (i.e. baby birds that successfully grow to adulthood) of native species (Koenig 2003, Ideas.Ted.com).
Given the problems that have risen from their introduction you may be wondering why they were even brought over from Europe. In the 1800’s a group called the American Acclimatization Society was founded with the purpose of introducing European wildlife to the new country for cultural reasons. Such societies were popular during this time when many European countries colonized other nations and felt either the need for the familiar or thought that the local wildlife were just not as good as that back home. It is even believed that one member of the American Acclimatization Society and a huge fan of Shakespeare, desired to bring to the USA all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works.
Two starlings fighting it out over some mealworms.
Regardless of their reputation here in North America, the starling is striking, with its jet-black color and iridescent feathers and bright yellow beak. In the wintertime they develop spots speckled across most of their body feathers. Many people do not welcome them at their feeders, as they are larger sized songbirds that crowd out other birds at a feeder. I usually have 5 -6 of them hang around my feeders in the winter but do not take much notice of them and they do not monopolize the feeders. In fact I often see then feeding quietly along with doves, sparrows, cardinals, juncos, titmice, downy wood peckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, a Carolina wren, and even my family of bluebirds.
One thing I like about starlings is their ability to mimic and copy different bird songs an even the searing scream of a red-tailed hawk. They will mimic human associated sounds as well like motorcycles and can even learn to say words. European Starling mimics words ("Talking" Starling) - YouTube
Even better than vocal mimicry, in my opinion, is the large flocks that they form and their “murmurations”, when they fly in large groups swirling back and forth in various undulating formations, dividing and then coming back together. They are always fun to watch. Check out this video, it is one of my all time favorites, plus I like flugelhorn music:
Murmuration, Birds various - Bing video
Finally, evolutionarily speaking the starling has spread across North America in a very short period of time and has been able to adapt to a variety of conditions. Interestingly starlings introduced from the UK to Australia have not spread across Australia as fast or as well as those in North America. A biologist is investigating what has allowed the North American starlings to become more adaptable relative to those introduced into Australia. Check out the story here: European Starlings’ Global Success Reveals Evolution Doesn’t Always Take Millions Of Years (forbes.com)
So, whether you are a fan of these birds are not, you must admire them in their beauty, tenacity, and adaptability.
USDA: European-Starlings-WDM-Technical-Series.pdf (usda.gov)
Cornell: European Starling Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Koenig 2003 https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.2003.02262.x
Ideas.Ted.Com: Even if we don’t love starlings, we should learn to live with them | (ted.com)