Speaking of Nature: When in flocks, the starling can easily overtake most habitats

  • A European starling in winter plumage. Note the iridescent green feathers on the back. The starling has three different seasonal plumage types and this can be confusing to birders who are just getting started. FOR THE RECORDER/ BILL DANIELSON


Monday, January 08, 2018

After spending over 30 years watching and listening to birds, I think it is fair to call myself a birder. Like so many other people around the world, I find myself besotted with the feathered creatures that live their lives in the open and fill the landscape with their songs, antics and vitality. I can spend hours in their company and still want more. The rhythm of my life seems to be in perfect harmony with theirs.

It continues to amaze me how much there is to learn about the various different species that live in my yard. A flock of blue jays seen one year is not the same flock of blue jays seen another. Birds have a magical quality of permanence about them because the individuals of a species all look enough alike to be interchangeable. If, however, you spend enough time watching their behavior you can still manage to pick out individuals from the immortal flocks; single birds recognizable for some slight difference that may be invisible to another person.

Even my beautiful wife, Susan, is becoming something of a birder. She’s been watching me watch the birds for over 10 years and she is able to name many of the species that frequent our feeders. Susan is especially good at detecting the hawks that zip through our yard because “her” window looks south into a line of white pines that the hawks often perch in. Together, the two of us have complimentary views of our yard on cold winter mornings and are able to keep track of most of what is going on.

Still, it is important for me to remember that what may seem obvious to me might be something completely new to others, and this point struck home when I recently received an email from a reader who had a question about a bird. The unsigned message read, “10 a.m. this morning. Not sure of this one, has not been back. Spent maybe 10 minutes playing with the suet. Thought it was a grackle but its beak is too long and hooked. Can you identify?”

When I opened the photo file that had been attached to the email, I felt that feeling of instant recognition that comes with seeing family members, friends and celebrities. The bird in question was a European starling, and somewhere in my brain the “starling file” was opened. Genus name “Sturnus,” which is the Latin word for starling. This is not to be confused with the name “Sterna,” which is Old English for “tern.”

The species name is “vulgaris,” which is Latin for “common” or “ordinary.” This was certainly true for the birders of Europe, where the bird was widespread. It was not the case in the New World when Europeans first arrived. The Atlantic Ocean proved to be too great an obstacle for starlings to conquer on their own.

They would receive assistance in 1890 when a man named Eugene Schieffelin decided to release 60 birds in New York’s Central Park. Schieffelin was a member of the American Acclimatization Society and it was his goal to introduce all of the bird species mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to America. Not satisfied with his efforts in 1890, Schieffelin released an additional 40 birds in 1891. The species, which numbered zero individuals in 1889, now numbers in excess of 200 million individuals today and is considered an invasive species in North America, were it has turned out to be something of an ecological nightmare.

The starling has several characteristics that make it particularly suitable for successful acclimatization to new parts of the world. The birds have aggressive personalities and they are quite a bit larger than the majority of our native songbirds. This particular combination of attributes makes them superb bullies and gives the species an enormous advantage over native species. I’ve seen blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers and mourning doves stand their ground, but most other species retreat.

Another characteristic that can make starlings formidable in the wintertime is the fact that they will travel in huge flocks. One or two starlings isn’t much of a problem, but one or two hundred starlings is something else altogether. A flock of one thousand birds will really get your attention. Like a swarm of locusts, a flock of starlings can move into an area and strip it of anything edible in very short order. Then, the nomadic flocks move on and leave the local birds with a greatly diminished habitat. Our native species, which evolved without the starling to contend with, have seen the rules of the game change dramatically in the past 127 years and some of them are struggling.

Finally, the European starling is right at home in the presence of human beings. Everything we do seems to encourage and support starlings, whether we mean to help them or not. Our use of the landscape provides enhanced habitat for them. Our construction of buildings provides almost limitless nooks and crannies in which they can build their nests. Our agricultural practices helps them further by covering the landscape with food.

Farmers can be particularly unhappy with starlings because of their negative impacts. I have a particularly vivid memory from my teenage years of driving toward the Mountain Farms Mall and seeing several armed men in the driveway to a dairy farm. These men were all holding shotguns and they were standing near the open barns where grain was kept in large piles. All at once, the men raised their guns and started firing into the air at starlings that were coming in to raid the grain meant for the cows.

This may seem barbaric to some, but a horde of starlings can do terrible damage to stores of grain. First, they can eat a lot of it. Second, and perhaps more damaging, the starlings can foul the grain with their droppings. Hundreds of starlings can leave a lot of fecal matter behind them if they stay in an area for too long. Dairy cows can be harmed if they have to eat grain that is badly tainted with bird droppings.

The greatest damage that starlings cause is to native birds. Starlings are cavity nesters, which means that they like to build nests inside things. Out in the wild this means that starlings, which are unable to make their own cavities, may steal cavities that are being used by other birds. Flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, bluebirds, and many of our other native species can be driven out of their nest cavities by large, aggressive starlings.

There really isn’t much that we can do about starlings at this point. Practically speaking, there are just too many issues that we can’t really control. You can, however, discourage starlings on a small scale by closing up holes in buildings and removing food sources that starlings are utilizing. The large flocks will often move on in a day or two, and after they disappear you, can put feeders back out for your native species to enjoy.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.