The European Starling, a love hate relationship
This week we look at an avian invasive species, the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).
It seems people either love European starlings or hate them. They are admittedly beautiful birds. In the spring their feathers are sleek, black, with a purple-green iridescence, and their bills are yellow. In the winter their dark feathers are heavily speckled and their bills turn dark.
They are well-known songsters, producing an array of sounds from whistles to warbling. However, their songs are not always their own. European starlings (henceforth, starlings) are known to mimic other birds, including: jays, hawks and northern flickers. These tricksters can fool even the most experienced birders. The next time you think you hear a jay, take a look around and see if it is not just a starling pulling a fast one on you.
As their name suggests, they are native to Europe. Starlings were first brought to North America in the 1800’s. The population really took off when 100 starlings were released in New York in 1890. The birds were released by a Shakespeare fan whose goal was to release all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to North America.
Sixteen of the 50 pairs that were released survived the winter and are believed to be the ancestors of all starlings found in North America. The population expanded into Canada in 1919, and now starlings can be easily spotted across Canada, including in Prince Edward Island.
In the fall and winter, starlings will form large flocks to feed and roost. Check out this video captured by Pat Martell of a starling murmuration over the Hillsborough bridge in Charlottetown: http://youtu.be/cYFrzoA6ICo (Fun fact: a flock of starlings is called a murmuration!)
While starlings may be beautiful, fun to listen to and watch, they can also negatively affect our economy and environment.
Starlings can be a major nuisance for farmers. When their huge flocks stop to feed, they can decimate fruit and grain crops. They have also been known to pilfer livestock feed, increasing costs for farmers and potentially contaminating livestock food and water. They are also known to carry diseases that are transmissible to livestock and to humans.
Starlings are also a problem for native wildlife species, because they tend to outcompete native species for food and nest sites. Starlings are cavity nesters that are known to commandeer nest sites from woodpeckers, flickers, flycatchers and tree swallows. Evidence is varied on whether or not starlings have a significant effect on population levels of other cavity nesters – they seem to affect some species and not others. However, they have been shown to take over significant numbers of northern flicker and red-bellied woodpecker nesting cavities.
They can be a nuisance for human homeowners too. I had a pair of starlings nest in my dryer vent two summers ago. The mess on the house and the constant noise was enough for me to post their eviction notice.
As with many of our invasive species - love them or hate them, they are here to stay. We have a bird-loving Shakespeare fanatic to thank for that!
- Julie-Lynn Zahavich, PEIISC Member