European Starling

Sturnus Vulgaris

By Amy L. Nash

The activities of humans can bring about spectacular changes in bird distribution. Starlings, for example, have been accidentally or deliberately introduced into numerous countries, and have become one of the most abundant bird species in the world. The importation of starlings into the United States was originally done for sentimental purposes. What people did not expect was the considerable damage that the starlings would bring upon the environment, other species, and humans.

The first attempts to introduce the European Starling to the United States from 1872 to 1890 were unsuccessful. After repeated efforts to introduce the bird, it was finally successfully brought to New York City. It was on March 16 1891, when a wealthy New Yorker with a strong passion for the birds of Shakespeare, Eugene Schieffelin, decided to import the starlings into New York City’s Central Park. Schieffelin also imported bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks; however, these birds were not as successful as the starling. The starling began to breed almost immediately after being released in Central Park. The first recorded nest was under the attic of the American Museum of Natural History, which some people perceive as a sort of in-your-face gesture. Since the introduction of the starlings 100 years ago, the European Starling has quickly spread across the continent. The European Starling’s ability to exploit, adapt to, and outwit humans has led to the incredible range stretching from the Arctic to New Zealand.

The European Starling is a member of the class Aves (birds) and of the Sturnidae (starling) family. The defining characteristics of the European Starling include black feathers that are iridescent in spring and heavily speckled in winter. The bill of the starling is yellow in spring and summer, and dark in winter. The Starling has a strong, stocky build with powerful legs and bill, and a short tail. Young birds are often dusky brown in appearance. The head and body length is approximately 7 ˝ to 8 ˝ inches.

European Starlings are adapted for prairies, woodlands, suburbia and open fields, however they often reside in the centers of large cities where they are in close contact with humans. In cities the Starling often roost under large bridges, on buildings, or in trees. Starlings avoid heavy timbered areas and are absent above the timberline. During the daytime, a typical European Starling moves from its roost to nearby cultivated areas, parks, gardens, vegetated playgrounds, fields, airports, farms, cattle-yards, rangelands, orchards, berry plantations, and natural locations. During the winter months, the Starling is dependent upon human-made habitats such as chimneys, light fixtures, incinerators, and manure piles.

The nests of European Starlings consist of grass, feathers, plant fibers, bark strips, rootlets, straw, twigs, rope, human-made trash and other debris. Their nest sites are often in the trees as well as in human-made structures such as buildings, houses, barns, sheds, bridges, chimneys, silos, or grain elevators. In each of these habitats, water is frequently a part of the setting. Reproduction amongst the European Starling most often occurs from March 15 to July 27. There are usually two broods per year. Adults lay four or five eggs that hatch in less than two weeks. Fledglings leave the nest after a short period of time, often in less than a month.

European Starlings are omnivorous. They can make a meal out of a tremendous variety of food, which aids their survival in cities. Starling often feed on insects, offal, domestic scraps, and various other foods. They eat insects with a special method, known as the ‘zirkelin method.’ The secret of this method as well as the success of the starlings lies in an adaptation in the musculature of its beak. The muscles attached to the starling’s bill allow the bird to pry open grass, loose soil, or leaf litter to uncover grubs and insect eggs. Another advantage in the bodily structure of the starling, which gives the starling a greater edge, is found in the formation of its skull. The skull is particularly pinched and narrow in the front so that when the beak is open, the starling’s eyes, which are normally on the side of the head, shift forward and the bird has a good view of what is exposed by the action.

European Starlings are often outgoing and expressive during the breeding season, as well as at other times. They freely imitate anything from other birds to squirrels to barking dogs, in addition to other environmental noises and as a result have a varied vocabulary. The European Starlings are known to sing any melody they can steal, often this noise consists of harsh and dissonant notes. In Shakespeare’s day, families often had starling as pets and taught them to speak. Starlings are also described as being aggressive, smart and wary. They defend themselves as a group and will not hesitate to mob an intruding hawk.

There is rumor that the arrival of the European Starling in America was part of a scheme to bring birds mentioned in Shakespeare. Although the followers of Shakespeare may have appreciated the efforts, the long-term effects have been detrimental. The European Starling has become a serious agricultural pest, eating fruits and seeds in farm and in orchards. Large urban roosts of European Starling on buildings have become a nuisance in large cities. The vast quantities of droppings are a health hazard to humans and a threat to buildings because of the damaged caused by the uric acid.

Efforts to control the problems created by the vast Starling population include attempts to reduce numbers or to scare them from areas where the damage they have caused is extreme. Scaring them only provides local, temporary relief and causes the problem to move from one place to another. The most effective long-term solution seems to be to render buildings and bridges unattractive to starlings by design and structural changes. The starling has also become a threat and competitor to other species, such as woodpeckers and Buffleheads. European Starlings have not only taken over our cities today, but also the homes and cavities of members of several other species.

Written fall 2000, as a service learning project for Dr. Gary Coté's Biology 102 class at Radford University. Copyright Pathways for Radford.

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