Common Starlings

Common Starlings or European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, Courtesy US FWS, Dave Menke, Photographer
Common or European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, Courtesy US FWS, Dave Menke, Photographer
It all began so innocently. Let’s bring over a few European starlings to add authenticity for a Shakespearean theatrical. That was 1890. Today, North America has about half of the world population of starlings, approaching a few hundred million.

Following many years of demonizing this bird, I have become convinced they do have value beyond compost. In fact, they are utterly fascinating. My first glimmer came when a friend suggested I read “Arnie, the Darling Starling”. I have yet to read it, but he convinced me this bird was worth taking a second look.

European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, Courtesy & © Hilary Shughart, Photographer
European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris,
Courtesy & © Hilary Shughart, Photographer”
Since that time in the mid 70’s, I’ve witnessed many of the starling’s remarkable behaviors. It possesses a maddening ability to imitate other birds- killdeer, red tail hawk, evening grosbeak, etc., with such accuracy I always stop to look for a killdeer perched in a tree- gotcha Jack! The starling’s gift for mimicry has long been recognised. Mozart had a pet starling which could sing part of his Piano Concerto in G Major. He became very attached to the bird and arranged an elaborate funeral for it when it died three years later.

Starlings are commonly kept as pets in Europe and widely used as laboratory animals, second only to pigeons. Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz wrote of them in his book King Solomon’s Ring as “the poor man’s dog” and “something to love”. Their inquisitiveness makes them easy to train or study.

Starling Murmuration Courtesy Wikimedia and Copyright Walter Baxter Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license
Starling Murmuration
Courtesy Wikimedia and Copyright Walter Baxter
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license
I’ve always been amazed by their immense winter flocks called murmurations- thousands of birds reminiscent of what the now extinct passenger pigeons must have resembled, and for these massive bird clouds to change form and direction in milliseconds, which I observed when a merlin falcon plummeted into an enormous flock that split in half. I stood in disbelief as the cloud morphed, then saw the merlin emerge just below the bifurcated cloud.

The starling has 12 subspecies breeding in open habitats across its native range in temperate Europe to western Mongolia, and it has been introduced to seven other countries from Australia to Fiji.

Major declines in populations have occurred from 1980 onward in much of Europe and Eurasia. The decline appears to be caused by intensive farming methods used in northern Europe, and the reduced supply of grassland invertebrates needed for the nestlings. This in contrast to 1949, when so many starlings landed on the clock hands of London’s Big Ben that it stopped the clock!
Our love hate starling relationships are evident in how various countries view them. In Spain, starlings are hunted commercially as a food item. In France, it is classified as a pest, and can be killed throughout most of the year. In Great Britain, Starlings are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. In 2008, the United States government killed 1.7 million starlings, the largest number of any nuisance species to be culled.

A closing note- starlings are trapped for food in some Arab countries. The meat is tough and of low quality, so it is casseroled or made into pâté. Even when correctly prepared, it may still be seen as an acquired taste. You may wish to remove them from your grocery list.

Jack Greene for BAS, and I’m wild about Utah’s not so wild starlings!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US FWS, Dave Menke, Photographer
Pictures: Courtesy US FWS, Lee Karney, Photographer
Pictures: Courtesy Wikimedia and Copyright Walter Baxter, Photographer (Licensed Under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starling_murmuration.jpg
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections
Text: Jack Greene, Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society & Utah State University Sustainability
Additional Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, Bridgerland Audubon Society, Wild About Utah,

Additional Reading:

Grant, Val, Short-tailed Bird of Perdition-Starlings, Wild About Utah, June 5, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/short-tailed-bird-of-perdition-starlings/

European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, Julia Butler Hansen Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.fws.gov/refuge/julia_butler_hansen/wildlife_and_habitat/habitats/birds/european_starling.html

King, Barbara J., Video: Swooping Starlings In Murmuration, National Public Radio (NPR), January 4, 2017 2:29 PM ET, https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/01/04/506400719/video-swooping-starlings-in-murmuration

European Starling, BirdWeb, http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/european_starling

Sigl Corbo, Margarete(Author), Barras, Diane Marie(Author), Morrill, Leslie(Illustrator), Arnie, the Darling Starling, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, November 1, 1983, https://www.amazon.com/Arnie-Darling-Starling-Margarete-Corbo/dp/0395343909

Short-tailed Bird of Perdition-Starlings

European Starling
Dr.Thomas G. Barnes, US Fish & Wildlife Service

I’ll bet you’ve always wanted to know about starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), whose Latin name speaks volumes. They’re noisy, gregarious, messy and are blamed for forcing many hole-nesting birds, bluebirds and flickers, even an occasional kestrel, out of their nests for fun and profit. For this the starlings plead “no contest.” They spread across the United States and Canada like the plague after their introduction into New York City’s Central Park in the late 1800’s, just so we unwashed Americans could have the joy of being able to associate, up close and personal, with all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare. I think Pay Back by the Brits sums it up nicely, kind of like the Russians and cheat grass, halogeton, tamarisk and Russian thistle (tumbleweed).

So what can be said that could possibly redeem this rapid breeding invader whose short intestinal tract means they have to consume beaucoup amounts of food to survive? This is great during the summer when insects and creepy-crawlies are their favorite cuisine; it’s during the winter when man-produced food pellets meant for our livestock are like Quaker’s puffed rice or wheat, the digesta are “shot from guns”, another not so an endearing image of the starling. They cost feedlot owners and berry farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. Imagine 100,000 and up to two million starlings descending on your holly orchard or your feedlot. Imagine them staying around for the winter. It’s not hard to imagine spreading Starlicide-treated pellets around your livestock.

Not to defend this image, especially after working with the little rounders for 14 years (six years with the Feds, eight years as a graduate research topic), but they showed me that I was working with quite an intelligent species. Observing these birds in the field, in large pens in Green Canyon and in Skinner boxes in the Experimental Psychology laboratory on USU’s campus, these birds made reasoned judgments concerning the food they ate, spatially and temporally learning to avoid poisoned food, teaching another the avoidance pattern they had learned, making decisions just like we do, thinking, learning from mistakes. We tried to eliminate them without success. We could try convincing them that eating at feedlots or orchards is a dangerous game and repel the little rounders. Whatever the case they are here to stay, but it would be nice if there weren’t quite so many.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photo: Dr.Thomas G. Barnes, US Fish & Wildlife Service, http://digitalrepository.fws.gov/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/nctcdiglib&CISOPTR=593&CISOBOX=1&REC=8 Pubic Domain


Text: C. Val Grant, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Listen for this Bird:

Starlings as recorded by Kevin Colver of https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections and found on the Western Soundscape Archive at the University of Utah.

Additional Reading:

European Starling Identification:
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/European_Starling/id

National Invasive Species Information Center,
http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/animals/eurostarling.shtml

http://www.birdweb.org/birdweb/bird_details.aspx?id=360

http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=sturvulg

Starlicide R.E.D Sheet

http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/REDs/factsheets/2610fact.pdf