A friend sent me a link to the most amazing video of a murmuration of starlings. I watched it transfixed. I decided instantly I HAD to share it on my blog. As long as I was posting, why not add a few facts about the bird along with the video? Should be easy, fast.
Three hours of research later and my blog post was still not ready. The internet is a blessing… and a curse.
Over here in the USA, we’re not supposed to like European Starlings. That’s what I’d been taught. They are referred to with disdain as non-native invasives and are blamed for stealing potential nesting sites from our native cavity-nesting birds, effectively contributing to the population decline of a couple dozen species including the beloved Bluebird and the charismatic Kestrel. Before making such an assertion on my blog, I wanted to find a credible source. What I found surprised me.
This claim that starlings are responsible for population declines among native birds because of nest site usurption is challenged by Walt Koenig of Cornell University. In an August 2003 publication he analyzes data from the Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Atlas and concludes that starlings can’t be blamed for all the declines. In fact, according to Walt, only the sapsuckers seem to have been adversely affected by starlings.
Surely, though, it cannot be disputed that Sturnus vulgaris has not always been a part of the North American landscape. The story here is that Shakespeare fans are to blame.
The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I’ll holler ‘Mortimer!’ Nay I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion. (Henry IV, Part I, William Shakespeare)
It is reported that Shakespeare mentions over 600 species of birds in his plays, this being the only time “starling” is mentioned. I have verified neither of these claims, so please don’t quote me! Nevertheless, I have heard more than one bird lover tell the story of a man (or maybe a group) who got it into his head (or their collective heads) that North America should be home to every bird mentioned in a Shakespeare play.
It might not be true. What does seem to be true is that in 1871 the American Acclimatization Society was formed with the purpose to introduce European flora and fauna to North America. Most of the blame for our current starling dilema seems to be placed on the chairman of that society, Eugene Schieffelin, a fan of Shakespeare, whose name, by the way, is spelled differently in various sources.
The society and others released many species of birds from Europe in the hopes that they would thrive here. House Sparrows and European Starlings seem to have been the most successful, spreading across the continent in relatively short order. The starlings came in two batches – 60 in 1890, 40 more in 1891 – all released in Central Park, NYC. For the first six years or so, they seemed to stick around the NYC area. But within a few decades they could be found north into Canada, south into Mexico, and west to California.
They cause problems besides competing with native birds for nest sites and food. In agricultural areas they are considered pests and are sometimes “controlled” with poison before they can destroy crops by eating most and fouling the rest with droppings.
Still, I can’t help marveling at them. They are not unattractive birds. I love the purples, greens, and blues. I love the golden-tips of new feathers, which will eventually wear off leaving the bird a more solid irridescent combination of colors. At breeding time the bright yellow beak and orange feet contrast beautifully with the blues and greens of the feathers. It can be fun to watch their comical antics and listen to their many songs and calls. Mimics they are, as hinted in the Shakespeare passage above; they can learn to repeat all kinds of sounds.
But it was their flight, you may recall, that had me so transfixed. Turn on the volume and listen to the poetic narration of a man who can watch these displays regularly near his home outside of Oxford, England.
Ain’t it amazin?
- Call of the Reviled, by Steve Mirsky, Scientific American
- European Starling, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Eurpean Starlings and Their Effect on Native Cavity-Nesting Birds, Walter Koenig, Conservation Biology, Volume 17, Number 4, August 2003
- European Starlings, by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye, 1988, Stanford University
- American Acclimatization Society Meeting Notice, New York Times, November 15, 1877.
- USDA Poisons Starling Pests – KITV
- And oh, heck: just do an internet search for “European Starling”… you’ll find many, many, many, many more links!