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The European Starling

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Photo by Stuart Fisher Photo by Stuart Fisher

An invader or not? A Bird in Hand

During the year of 1890 in New York City’s Central Park a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts released about one hundred European Starlings into the air. Their hope was to establish in North America every species of bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, which, unfortunately, included the starling. From this humble beginning, all the starlings present on the continent today can trace their origins back to these original birds. All two hundred million of them. Sigh. 

The European starling was not the first nor the last foreign bird to be released in North America. But many such imports could not compete with the native birds and soon disappeared. Not so the starling. It could not only compete with the natives, it could out-compete with them—even with one wing tied behind its back—and in time spread from New England to Alaska and all the way down to northern Mexico, and, of course, from sea to shining sea. The only other species of bird that is as common as the European starling is another immigrant, the English House Sparrow. It is ironic that two of the most common birds in North America, especially in urban centers, are both non-native species. But then, I guess, most of us are descendents of immigrants, too. 

People often confuse the native Brewer’s blackbird with starlings since they often flock together. With careful observation it is easy to tell the difference. While they are similar in color and size, both dominantly black and smaller and less rotund than the ubiquitous robin, they are also quite different. During the fall starlings sport a distinctive covering of white spots—“stars,” hence starling—that help to distinguish this bird from the blackbird. The starling also has a much shorter tail, often appearing to be practically tailless when tromping across your yard. Blackbirds have a much longer and more noticeable tail. Lastly, the starlings sport short, pointed, triangular-shaped little wings that seem barely up to the task of keeping the bird airborne, hence their frantic flailing. The Brewer’s blackbirds seem much better proportioned and appear far more leisurely when in the air. The male Brewer also has that distinctive yellow eye; starling’s eyes are black. Both species migrate elsewhere if the winter is particularly cold or snowy.

Blackbirds and starlings also exploit the same ecological niche. They both tend to congregate in large flocks and both are willing to raid farm lands in search of grains and insects. Consequently the two species have been subject to population-control measures in order to protect crops. Similarly, both species are omnivores, meaning that they’ll include insects in their diet; indeed the starlings actually preferring bugs over anything else. But part of the starling’s success is their willingness to eat almost anything. Specialists they are not!

Another reason why the European starling is the bane of the North American birding world is that, similar to the English House Sparrow, they are aggressive breeders and frequently displace native birds from preferred nesting areas. Thus their numbers have increased while native numbers have declined. That being said, both of these invasive species have probably reached their natural balance in our part of the world, which explains why they are so common in cities. I suppose that is a virtue, because if house sparrows and starlings did not live in these urban jungles, nothing else probably would. 

I detest the English House sparrow, but I don’t mind starlings—but then, I’m not a farmer. And starling flocking maneuvers during the minutes before sunset can be quite spectacular. They wheel about in a large, amorphous, but coherent form, like a giant airborne amoeba, until the flock settles on a tree or two for the night.  

What can you do? Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re not going anywhere. So we might as well learn to appreciate them. The European starling is probably more like us than we’ll want to admit; common, noisy, and seemingly everywhere. But also just trying to make a living. Just don’t confuse them with the blackbirds. That would be bad form. Happy birding! 

 

Photos: One of these things is not like the other. At left, the European Starling (photo by Stuart Fisher). At right, the English House Sparrow (photo by Swannie.) Both photos licensed under Creative Commons.

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birding, English house sparrow, A Bird in Hand, European Starling, blackbirds

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