Invasive starlings are unloved despite their looks

  • Updated: December 24, 2013 - 10:50 AM
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Starling flocks — known as murmurations — re-form swiftly in mesmerizing patterns. Several videos have gone viral, including this one: www.tinyurl.com/7nwdc8l.

Photo: PA Owen Humphreys • Associated Press,

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European starlings, an invasive species some of us have been tilting with for decades, are superior birds. It’s no wonder that today there are an estimated 200 million of them in North America.

It was 1890 when an eccentric named Eugene Schieffelin attempted for the third time to introduce into our avian ménage all of the bird species Shakespeare mentioned in his writings. Schieffelin was president of the American Acclimatization Society, an oddball assemblage now defunct. The birds, released in New York City’s Central Park, came from Europe.

Schieffelin failed with skylarks and song thrushes. He succeeded in spades when he released his third batch of imports, 60 common starlings (their Continental name).

A New York Times story in 1990, recognizing the centenary of the starlings’ arrival, said the birds are “one of the costliest and most noxious birds on the continent.”

I think that’s a bit harsh, but I live in what is pretty much a starling-free zone.

Starlings eat grain and fruit, earning farmers’ enmity. They can carry diseases harmful to people. From a bird lover’s standpoint, the problem is that starlings compete with native bird species for nesting sites. Starlings are cavity nesters, as are many of our favorite birds — bluebirds, swallows, chickadees, nuthatches and others.

The size of the cavity entry is perhaps the only starling deterrent. The diameter of the entry hole in a nest box meant for bluebirds, for example, is critical. Starlings, larger than bluebirds, should not be able to squeeze in.

Important to the starlings’ successful survival is that they define cavities loosely, and are not fussy about ambiance. Starlings will nest in anything resembling a cavity, including nooks and crannies in buildings and spaces behind store signage.

Numbers become a factor when starlings flock, sometimes in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. They can and have brought down airplanes when inhaled by jet engines.

Other starling issues include noise — they are sociable birds, chatterers — and defecation. Picture, without looking up, hundreds of thousands of birds wheeling overhead, defecating as they go.

A flock that chose our Capitol as a roosting site some years ago flummoxed all attempts to shoo them away. Efforts included balloons, artificial owls (which rarely work), itching powder and mechanical hawks. Someone suggested greasing perches in hopes that greasy starling feet would smear eggs and nix hatching.

Starlings whistle, warble, chatter harshly, trill at high pitch, rattle and issue piercing screams. They are accomplished mimics. They can mimic us if we keep what we say simple. They are expert at singing other birds’ songs. They can also duplicate the sounds of dogs and cats, and sounds from inanimate sources.

Deep glossy brown when breeding, with iridescent green and purple highlights, European starlings are pretty. They are spotted in winter, and handsome then, too. Troublesome or not, they can be admired for their beauty.

When starling flocks flush, the birds — hundreds or thousands — fly in tight formation, wheeling into turns, gliding to new perches. Perhaps the best bird-related videos I’ve seen showed massive flocks of starlings swaying in the air to music only they can hear.

If I have a problem with starlings it’s that we don’t have enough of them locally to create such magical performances. A metamorphic flock of starlings can be otherworldly.

See for yourself: You can find several videos of these performances by searching Google with the words “starling flock dynamics video.”

Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at woodduck38@gmail.com. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.





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