European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
The 112 starling species comprise a successful bird family of the Old World. But one of them was introduced to Central Park in New York City in the 1890s, and the rest, as they say, is history. The original population of 80-100 birds expanded rapidly across the continent, and by 1949 had reached Puget Sound. Now the European Starling is one of the most common and widespread birds of this region. Feeding on grass lawns and in agricultural fields, the starling is always assured of abundant habitat.
Starlings are about 19 cm in length with relatively long bill, short tail, and long legs. They look stocky in comparison with long-tailed robins and jays. The adults have beautifully iridescent plumage, glowing purple and green. In fresh plumage, most of the body feathers are tipped with gray, producing a spangled effect, but these tips wear off during winter, and most birds are entirely shiny iridescent by spring. The dark bill of winter turns bright yellow, with blue at its base in males and pink in females. Juveniles are quite different looking, all brown.
The long, somewhat flattened bill of a starling is adapted for “gaping,” a foraging method by which the bill is inserted in the substrate and then opened, exposing insect larvae at the ground surface. Leaf axils can also be pried apart by this method. Flocks of starlings feed in fields, steadily moving forward while birds at the back of the flock continually fly over the others and land in front.
Starlings have great voices. The male song is very varied, with notes harsh, squeaky, and whistled, and great ability for mimicry of both the other species of birds around it and human-produced sounds. That Red-winged Blackbird or Killdeer you hear may just be a starling in full song! Males in full song present quite a visual display by waving their wings, the tips describing tight circles.
Starlings utilize cavities for nesting, both natural cavities in trees and cliffs and cavities made by woodpeckers, which they sometimes displace. However, a good percentage of North American starlings nest in urban and suburban areas, using the nooks and crannies present in a setting dominated by built objects.
Starlings are mostly monogamous, but in some populations polygamy is common, a male taking a second mate. The second mate receives little assistance from the male, however, and fledges fewer young because of this. A small percentage of male starlings practice extra-pair copulations, mating with females other than their mates. This has been found to be commonplace in birds in general, and its origin may be its potential (in both sexes) to compensate for possible infertility in a mate.
One of the most noteworthy things about this species is its winter roosts. These aggregations can total in the hundreds of thousands of birds, and when flying to or leaving the roosts, these flocks can darken parts of the sky. The function of such very large roosts is unknown but may just be the result of a flocking tendency that has no upper limit. One hypothesis is that the roosts act as “information centers,” places where starlings with poor foraging success can learn from successful foragers where to go the next day. There is as yet no evidence of the starlings’ ability to do this.
Starlings are not well loved by humans, at least in North America. As they defecate around the clock, their night roost sites become filthy and smelly. Because they evict some native birds from their nest cavities, they have been incriminated in local declines of some hole-nesting species. Finally, when the young fledge, their harsh calls may shatter the serenity of a suburban neighborhood. Nevertheless, this bird is here to stay, so we might as well enjoy it and learn from it.