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European Starling

(Sturnus vulgaris)
Banded 12 December, 1998 - Carmel, Indiana

General Information

The European Starling, native to Eurasia, has the dubious distinction of being one of the most successful birds introduced to North America. This, and several other misguided bird introductions, were an effort to introduce into North America all of the birds mentioned in the writings of William Shakespeare.

From 100 individuals released in 1890-91 in Central Park in New York City, an estimated 200 million birds are now found over most of North America, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean. Their range expanded to the midwest by 1930, reached the Rocky Mountains by 1940, and the west coast by the 1960’s (Cabe1993).

The starling is an intelligent, attractive, and interesting bird, but it has a significant negative impact on native species, and its habit of forming large wintering flocks often make it an unwelcome pest.

 

The European Starling has a glossy black plumage with greenish and purple iridescence. White tips predominate on the contour feathers following their annual molt. These white tips gradually wear off by the following spring, giving the bird an overall glossy black look. Starlings are 7.5 to 8.7 inches long with a wingspan of 15.5 inches. Weights range from 2.5 to 3 ounces.

European Starling
Figure 1 - European Starling

 

European Starling
Figure 2 - European Starling

 

Most birds have strong muscles that snap the bill shut, but the starling is different. Its strong muscles act to open the bill. This adaptation enables the bird to probe into grass, weeds or soil, and then open the bill to force aside the weeds to look for insect foods. At the same time, its eyes rotate forward allowing it to search for food directly in front of its bill. In the spring, the bill of the starling is yellow, but it becomes dark in the winter.

Starlings are distantly related to mockingbirds and Mynas, and will mimic other sounds. The ancient Romans taught them to mimic human speech. They are often heard sitting in a tree making a series of chirps, creaks, chatters, and rising whistles, and occasionally calls of other birds such as the killdeer, flicker, Wood Pewee, and crow.

European Starling
Figure 3 - European Starling

 

Starling upper wing
Figure 4 - Starling upper wing

 

Starlings are attractively patterned over the body and wing. The greater coverts of adult birds have yellowish edging.

 

 

Studies using x-ray film show that in flight, a starling breaths 3 times a second, and its wishbone acts like a spring, bending and recoiling by almost 50% percent. (Ehrlich et al. 1994).

Starling breast and under wing
Figure 5 - Starling breast and under wing

 

Starling tail
Figure 6 - Starling tail

 

The shape and color of their tail feathers, and the length of the iridescence on the throat feathers, are useful to determine the age and sex of a starling (Pyle 2001). The central tail feathers of the adult have cinnamon terminal edging and a well defined black subterminal band. A young bird (shown here) has buff edging and an indistinct black subterminal band.

Starlings are highly social birds. At any time of the year, they can be found feeding, migrating or roosting in flocks. The winter flock shown here, consisting of at least 3,000 birds, was located in downtown Indianapolis. Starlings have a well developed sense of taste, and are repelled by grape flavoring. Fogging with grape flavoring is an effective an environmentally safe method to discourage these birds from roosting.

 

Starling winter roost
Figure 7 - Starling winter roost

Starling winter roost
Figure 8 - Starling winter roost

 

Winter roosts of large number of starlings or other species of birds produce lots of droppings and a real mess. Accumulations of bird droppings enrich the soil and promote the growth of a naturally occurring soil fungus called Histoplasma capsulatum. When enriched soil or accumulations of bird droppings containing the fungal spores is disturbed, the spores become airborne, and when inhaled, can cause the disease Histoplasmosis.

Histoplasma is found worldwide, but studies show that in some areas in the east and central part of the USA, up to 80% of the population show Histoplasmin hypersensitivity, indicating previous exposure to the spores (Benenson 1995). In the Ohio Valley, large outbreaks of Histoplasmosis have historically occurred.

Starlings are cavity nesters, and will use a natural cavity in a tree, a woodpecker hole, an opening in a building, a ventilation pipe or a nest box. The nest, started by the male before pairing, is made of leaves, stems, and other plant material. The nest is kept fastidiously clean at first, but is allowed to get dirty and riddled with nest parasites before the young birds fledge.

After pairing, the female completes the nest. From 5 to 7 pale blue eggs, incubated by both the male and female, hatch in about 12 to 15 days. Young fledge in another 20 to 22 days, and depend on parents for food for a few days after leaving the nest. Two or three broods are fledged each season (Baicich and Harrison 1997).

Starling eggs in nest
Figure 9 - Starling eggs in nest

 

Banding Recoveries

According the the web page of the Bird Banding Lab, 654,751 starlings were banded between 1955 and 2000.

Banding studies show that European Starlings can live up to 21 years in the wild, and show site fidelity to breeding locations. Banded starlings in Europe were instrumental in early studies on migration of birds in Europe, and helped unravel some of the mysteries of bird migration and navigation.

If you should recover a banded bird, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Economic Importance and Conservation Status

Starling populations are doing extremely well, and their range is continuing to expand. From a pest control perspective, they are highly beneficial. They consume large numbers of clover beetles, cutworms, Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, ants, bees, wasps, and other insects. They also will eat garbage, and because they add fruits such as cherries and wild fruits to their diet, they can become an agricultural pest.

They will readily eat suet provided for woodpeckers, and that leads us to another downside of Starlings. Starlings are cavity breeders, and are aggressive competitors against native species of birds, especially cavity nesting birds such as flickers, bluebirds and the Great Crested Flycatcher.

Many attempts have been made to control starling populations, including shooting, trapping, broadcasting alarm calls, and the use of pesticides, but it is clear that starlings have found a permanent home in North America.

Literature Cited

Baicich, P. J. and C. J. O. Harrison. 1997. A guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. 2nd ed. Academic Press, New York.

Benenson, A. S. ed. 1995. Control of communicable diseases manual, 16th Ed. American Public Health Association, Washington D.C.

Cabe, P. R. 1993. European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). In The birds of North America, No. 48 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists’ Union.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, D. Wheye, and S. L. Pimm. 1994. The birdwatcher’s handbook. A guide to the natural history of the birds of Britain and Europe. Oxford University Press, New York.

Pyle, P. 2001. Identification guide to North American birds. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA.

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