Amazing Starlings: The Good, the Bad, the Bold and the Beautiful
The Good and The Beautiful:
- They eat tons of gypsy moths and their caterpillars, flies and their larvae and many other obnoxious insects.
- Male Starlings are gifted nest decorators and fumigators.
- Mated pairs are usually monogamous and are devoted parents.
- Mimicry is another of their talents, reproducing the sounds of other birds as well as humans and almost any sound they hear.
- Starlings are known for their gracefully-synchronized aerial murmuration dances.
- Feathers of shimmering iridescence sparkle with star-like dots, so there is no doubting their beauty.
The Bold and The Bad:
- Their aggression and territorial takeover habits have displaced and killed off many native songbirds.
- Corrosive droppings damage all kinds of surfaces and objects.
- They spread weed seeds and eat large amounts of grain crops.
- Because of their enormous flocks, they are a definite threat to aviation.
- Gluttony at backyard bird feeders pushes out the regular native bird visitors.
Starlings are an Asian species (sturnus vulgaris), also known as mynas. These highly social birds can be found across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands. Their iridescent black, shimmering green and purple plumage is dotted with light speckles, thus resembling a starry night sky. The beaks of adult males are lemon yellow, and they have long throat feathers which give them a rough appearance.
Now considered one of the worst nuisance birds in this country, Old World starlings were purposely introduced to Central Park, New York City in 1890 by a well-meaning but misguided man named Eugene Schiefflin. From the original 60 pairs released, they rapidly multiplied throughout the entire U.S. and Canada, displacing or killing native songbird species, their eggs and nestlings.
Flocks can number in the thousands moving instinctively as one unit in the sky. Swirling and changing direction is a survival tactic they employ to evade predators like Merlins, Sparrow Hawks and Falcons. This behavior is called a murmuration. At dusk smaller foraging groups join the larger flock, the concept being safety in numbers as they seek roosting spots for the night.
Descending upon farm crops, these 7-½“ to 9“ birds devour the grain and seeds. Because of the immense size of their flocks, they can pose a significant risk to aviation as well. In addition, they spread noxious weed seeds to the detriment of native plants. Their droppings are corrosive and cause hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage yearly.
I admire the beauty of their ’star’ covered gleaming feathers, despite their gluttony. Starlings are highly intelligent, and are gifted mimics of other birds as well as human objects. I once heard a starling accurately imitate a ringing phone!
Starlings are strong and noisy. They will try to dominate any area they occupy, and compete with our native birds for food and cavity nesting opportunities. Insects and fruit are their main food sources. On several occasions I have seen a huge flock of starlings land on my grandparents’ large lawn. They systematically poked their beaks into the soil to forage for and feast on grubs and flies.
Male starlings begin to build and actually decorate the nests with flowers to attract females. To repel insects they add fresh herbs. How smart is that! The males’ mating calls vary between squawks, chortles, trills, and what sounds to me like someone pounding nails into a board!
If she is properly impressed by his vocal talents and likes the floral offerings, the female will promptly rip out the decorations and finish building the nest. He is then officially accepted as her mate. The same nest will be used by the pair during the course of a breeding season to raise as many as 3 families. Four or more medium blue eggs are laid in the cups of soft, dried grass. Once the nestlings have hatched, both parents devote all their energy towards feeding their young.
If you should experience an invasion of these birds at your feeders, you have options. It is important to discourage them from remaining in your area, as they will aggressively drive out adult songbirds and kill any baby birds in order to use the nesting spots for themselves.
- Use an upside down suet feeder. Songbirds can easily figure out how to hang from and obtain food from this type of suet holder, while larger birds like starlings cannot feed from that position.
- During summer months, stop feeding your birds for a week or two. Without a ready supply of seeds, your nuisance birds may move on. Natural food sources are abundant, so supplemental feeding can be safely put on hold without causing any undue stress for your regular songbird visitors.
- Install a cage-type feeder. Smaller birds with smaller beaks can easily access seeds, while the starlings cannot.
- Buy grey striped rather than black oil sunflower seeds. Starlings have soft beaks and are not able to crack the outer shell of these seeds, while your regular backyard birds will have no trouble.
- Do not offer cracked corn or millet, which are some of the favorite foods of starlings.
- Do remove seed hulls and fallen seeds from beneath your feeders so as not to encourage these ground-foragers.
- Consider buying a bird feeder that closes automatically when heavier birds or squirrels try to feed from it.
- Tube style feeders limit access for larger birds because the short perch and proximity to feeding ports configuration is awkward for them. Larger groups will not be able to dine at once, causing squabbles. While they are competing with each other, no seeds are eaten!
- Outfit your bird houses with predator tubes. These provide a small ‘tunnel’ the songbirds use with ease, but the larger birds cannot enter. This prevents them from usurping the nest box or reaching the babies inside. They are forced to look elsewhere, and you have saved future generations of thankful songbirds.
Unless you have falcons and/or hawks patrolling your area, you may experience these powerhouse birds. Use the above tactics to minimize their impact on your bird population. Despite their aggressive takeover attitude, it is to their credit that they eat literally tons of gypsy moth caterpillars, blowfly and other obnoxious insect larvae and adults. They are attentive and devoted parents. And the murmuration ‘dance’ they perform is truly awesome!