Bird Lore: European Starling

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A pest that did not ask to come to the New World, the European Starling was introduced in New York City’s Central Park in the 1890s. A number of clueless individuals got the not-so-bright idea to release into Central Park all bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. Thus we have the starling. It spread across the continent, reaching the shores of Puget Sound by the 1940s.

The European Starling forages mostly on the ground but its diet is varied. It eats insects, seeds, and berries. It has been said that the species is attracted to lawns that host European cranefly larvae, but it does eat a variety of insects, including grasshoppers, beetles, flies and caterpillars. It also goes after spiders, snails, and earthworms. In fall and winter, when fewer insects are available across its North American range, the European Starling eats berries, fruits and seeds. It will come to bird feeders for a variety of items. Many bird feeding stations are equipped with weight-sensitive perches that discourage species such as this one.

The problem with the European Starling is that it is a cavity nester and it is aggressive. With a U.S. population of about 50 million birds, that is problematic for native birds of the Americas. Interestingly, however, studies have found few impacts on the populations of 27 native species. Only sapsuckers showed declines due to the European Starling. It has been shown to chase off a number of native cavity nesters, including Wood Duck, Bufflehead, Northern Flicker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Tree Swallow and Eastern Bluebird. For those who provide nest boxes for native birds, it is an ongoing struggle to deter starlings from out-maneuvering them. The shape and size of entrance holes can be designed to discourage starlings. If that does not work, starling nests can be destroyed, making the nest boxes once again available to native birds.

During breeding season, the male establishes his territory, chooses a nest site and then sings to attract a mate. When a female arrives, the male will perch near his nest site, sing and flap his wings. The male begins construction of the nest, usually in a cavity, bird house or in building crevices. The nest is loosely constructed of twigs, grass, weeds, leaves, trash and feathers. The female will finish off the nest, sometimes removing materials brought by the male. Both sexes incubate the four to six eggs for just under two weeks. Both adults feed the nestlings. The young leave the nest about three weeks after hatching. The European Starling has two broods per year.

On a positive note, the European Starling is a razzle-dazzle rake in its breeding plumage. Its yellow bill and iridescent feathers are striking. When this species gathers in large flocks in fall, it performs aerial ballets that are called murmurations. You can watch one here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY.

The European Starling is a strong flier that can reach speeds of up to 48 mph. The oldest recorded starling in North America was 15 years and three months of age when he died in Tennessee in 1972. He had been banded there in 1958. Although this is a common and widespread species, its North American population declined by 52 percent between 1966 and 2015. Murmuration, of course, is one of the collective nouns for a flock of starlings. Others are a chattering, affliction, scourge and constellation.

The European Starling is one of the master mimics of the bird world. It can sound like a freight train rumbling by. It can sound like just about any other bird. Some of the more common birds that it will mimic are the Killdeer, the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, Wood Thrush, Red-tailed Hawk and Northern Flicker, among others. So it can be difficult to select vocalizations that represent it. This Colorado recording reflects both the European Starling’s song and its imitation of several other species, as noted by the recordist: http://www.xeno-canto.org/306784.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

5 COMMENTS

  1. The book, “Arnie, The Darling Starling,” holds great memories of reading to my girls. Every time I see a Starling, I recall reading the book to them at various points as we toured Victoria.

  2. Great article on those necessary pests. Yes, as in many species (including human) there can be found redeeming qualities–no matter how few.

  3. Thank you for the informative article and the links. What we think of as invasive or intrusive plants and animals usually end up where they aren’t welcome by people that decide to rearrange nature. The beauty of the individual species is still a gift.

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