Starlings

European Starling by Tom LeBlanc

European Starling by Tom LeBlanc. (Click image to go to an article on Tom's blog about starlings.)

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.

European Starling by Jayne Gulbrand

European Starling by Jayne Gulbrand

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?

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19 thoughts on “Starlings

  1. I could quite happily choke the members of the American Acclimitization Society. I’m as far from New York as you can get and still stay dry, and I’m plagued by House Sparrows and Starlings. If they’re not taking nest sites here, they’re at least dominating the feeders in the winter, and chasing off the native birds. In the Starlings defence, in the ’70s in Vancouver, BC, the pest control people killed off a couple of hundred thousand during one winter. The following summer, we were plagued with crane flies, whose larva, apparently, are a favourite food of the Starling. I wonder if they were mentioned in Shakespeare too?

    • I went to Shakespeare online and searched for cranefly. Nothing came up. Today I attended an informational meeting of a group that is trying to increase kestrel populations by putting up and monitoring nest boxes. We were told that if starlings get in the box, we could let the babies hatch, then when they are 7-10 days old, put them in a ziplock bag and put them in the freezer. They would be taken to a wildlife rehab center be fed to the raptors there.

  2. what a wonderful video!
    i see these murmurations at least once a week here on my way to work in the morning (before dawn) and on my way home (at dusk) it never ceases to amaze me… and the sound, if they are flying over my car in the exact moments of my passing (which has only happened a hand full of times) is just like in the video. the other cool thing is when they land, en masse, in trees… as they fly off, it looks as if every leaf were falling at the same time.
    thanks for the post and the great variety of information you included in your post.

  3. I’ve heard the same things about Starlings – regardless, I find them an attractive bird.

    It would be amazing to see a murmuration like the ones in that video! Although Starlings are quite common here, I’ve never seen anything close to that large a flock.

  4. Excellent blog post – and a dazzling video. I’m always struck by different visions of the same animal. Depending on culture and local ecology, the same creaure may be protected or reviled, considered ugly or beautiful. Thanks for a great write-up.

  5. maybe if we had the internet back then they would have been content to watch them on video like this. I grew up in Essex near open farmland and this brought back memories of watching the starlings at dusk as a kid racing home for dinner. Thanks for sharing it!

  6. I always find it funny how accustomed we as a society, and as biologists in particular, are to making the judgment call “Non-native = BAD”. I happen to enjoy the starlings’ mimicry and the cohesiveness of a flock in flight. Very informative post!

  7. Jennifer-

    What a beautiful and compelling defense of Starlings. I never fully shared the disdain for this species that other birders have. I have seen similar awe inspiring murmurations of blackbirds. Thanks for sharing.

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