Often Outnumbering Humans

From Beijing to Rome, Thunder Bay to Amsterdam, starlings throng in the cities of the world in numbers that often exceed their human populations. Gathering in favourite trees in huge, murmuring masses, their gurgling, whistling, clacking cacophony can drown out even the sound of busy traffic on busy streets. Flocks often suddenly explode into the air, hundreds or even thousands of the squat, stubby-tailed birds swirling, ascending or diving as one, eventually settling on another group of trees or buildings.

Starlings, in effect, talked their way into North America. Members of the same family as the more renowned talking myna bird from India, starlings too have impressive vocal abilities and commonly mimic the calls of other birds as well as cats, dogs, flutes, chimes and machine sounds. They were originally grassland birds and became commonplace around the farms and cites of the ancient world, where they were taught by the Romans to speak Latin words and phrases, with proper gender and tenses. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, after the king forbids the name of his rival, Edmund Mortimer, to be uttered, the defamed earl’s ally, Henry Percy, malevolently jests:

I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion

This brief mention on stage bought the starling a ticket to America. In 1890, a wealthy drug manufacturer, Dugene Schieffelin, released about 60 imported starlings in New York’s Central Park in his project to establish all of the birds mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare in the United States. It was a classic example of romantic human ignorance resulting in ecological disaster.

While Schieffelin’s attempts to introduce nightingales, skylarks, song thrushes and chaffinches all failed, his starlings began their invasion of North America in earnest, symbolically building a nest within weeks of their Central Park release under the eaves in the tower of the nearby American Museum of Natural History. Prospering, multiplying and spreading forth, they crossed onto the Niagara Peninsula 1914 and nested for the first known time in Ontario in 1922, at Burlington. Ten years later, they were already the most common bird in many southern areas of the province.

Starlings had a devastating impact on native birds. Cavity nesters, already hard hit with competition from alien house sparrows for natal spaces, met an even more formidable adversary in the glossy-black, dagger-billed bruisers. Starlings will evict flickers, larger than themselves, from their newly chiseled chambers and eat purple martin eggs, nestlings and parents before claiming their apartments in multistoried bird boxes. Bluebirds, tree swallows, red-headed woodpeckers, great-crested flycatchers and many others can lose their homes if their doorways are more than five centimetres (two inches) wide, allowing a starling to squeeze through.

In addition to nesting in tree cavities and bird boxes, starlings set up in almost any well-sheltered space with a good perch nearby from which to defend it. Recesses on the sides of houses, holes in soffits, vents, old mailboxes, even the interior of traffic lights are sometimes used. After securing a site during the winter, a male perches outside of it and advertises for a roommate. Glimmering in the sun in his iridescent breeding best, hunching low, ruffling his neck feathers and fluttering his wing tips, he pours forth a continuous stream of whistles and clicks, squeals and twitters and all manner of acoustics. By vibrating either side of his syrinx—the vocal organ at the bottom of a bird’s windpipe—independently from the other, the balladeer can make two different sounds at the same time. It may not be the prettiest of birdsongs, but it’s certainly one of the most complex. The most versatile vocalists are the most successful in love.

Legend has it that Mozart’s pet starling influenced him in composing the aria “Trostlos schluchzet Philomele,” or at least learned to whistle the tune. Some experts also believe that the great composer’s bizarre divertimento for sextet (K. 522), nicknamed the Musical Joke, was really a replication of a starling’s intertwining of off-key whistled snatches of song, noting that Mozart wrote the piece eight days after he held a funeral, with memorial hymns and poetry, for his dark-feathered muse in 1784.

A beseeching starling bachelor also often holds a long stalk of grass in his beak to let females know he already has a furnished pad. When the little lady moves in, around late March, she usually tosses out most of the material he has sloppily assembled and remodels the space into a proper feather- and down-lined nest. She also continuously replenishes the cavity with green sprigs of yarrow, fleabane, wild carrot or similarly strong scented plants whose chemical compounds ward off nest parasites such as fly maggots, mites, ticks, fleas and bird lice.

With the eggs laid in April or May, fathers help with the incubation for about third of the daylight hours. Mothers sit tight on the nests the rest of the time. On average, parents feed the nestlings insects, especially lawn grubs and caterpillars, about once every three minutes. A week or so after the young fledge, around June, many couples build a new nest and start a second family.

As the breeding season ends in late summer, starlings gather in big, noisy flocks, feasting on grasshoppers and crickets in fields and roosting in large trees, under bridges or around buildings. In early autumn, their beaks fade to grey and they moult into white-speckled winter coats. Most remain in southern Ontario for the winter, switching to evergreen tree roosts, warming themselves on chimney tops and adeptly prying open spaces in cold or frozen turf beneath the snow to find dormant grubs and other sleeping insects. Some join large massings of red-winged blackbirds, grackles cowbirds to migrate south. They usually start returning in February. About the same time, starling beaks turn yellow and the white tips of their feathers wear off, putting them in shimmering breeding form once again.

Starling Facts:

Calls: Great variety of harsh chips, loud whistles, shrill squeals, low gurgles, clicks, twitters, creaks, burbles and rattles
Number of bird species whose calls are known to be mimicked by starlings: 56
Number of different segments of each male’s song: 20-70
Flying speed: 60-80 km/h (37-50 mph)
Length: 20-23 cm (8-9)
Wingspan: 37-41cm (14.5-16 in)
Weight: 70-95 g (2.5-3.35 oz)
Markings: Glossy black with brown spots and trim and iridescent glue-green sheen; bright yellow beak; strongly specked, with grey beak, in autumn and early winter; juveniles dusky grey-brown
Alias: European starling, common starling, líetourneau sansonnet, Sturnus
Name origin: Starling, meaning “little star,” may refer to the four-pointed star shape of the bird in flight or to starry speckles on its winter plumage
Name for a group: A murmuration of starlings
Whereabouts: Throughout city and suburbs, fields, forest edges
Territory: 50 cm (20 in) around nest hole defended; parents usually forage within 180-450 m (197-492 yd) of nest
Food: 40-60% insects, especially beetle grubs and adults, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, and wood lice; also earthworms, millipedes, slugs, snails, spiders, weed seeds, berries and other fruits, corn, grain, buds, human food scraps, carrion
Average daily helping: 7-23 g of invertebrates or 20-40 g of plant food
Nest: Grass, twigs, leaves, bark and scraps of garbage in a cavity with a 6-7-cm-wide (2.4-2.8-in-wide) entrance in a tree, post or side of a house, usually 3-8 m (10-26 ft) above ground
Parasitic mites per nest: Up to 8,000 in nests lined with pest-repelling green plants, and up to 780,000 in nests without
Average clutch: 4-6 brown-marked, light-blue or pale-green eggs, about size of peach pits
Incubation period: 11-13 days
Fledging age: 21-23 days
Age at first breeding: 2 years for most; 1 year for some females
Average annual survival: 35-45% in first year; 33-75% for adults
Lifespan: Up to 21 years in wild
Predators: Cats, dogs, rats, weasels, sharp-shinned hawks, owls, peregrine falcons; nests raided by squirrels
Urban population density: Often 100-1,000 nest per km2 (0.4 sq mi)
Notable starling roosts: Burlington Skyway Bridge, Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge, Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct and Gardiner Expressway
Estimated North American population: More than 200 million
Literature in which starlings play important parts: A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne; Headhunter by Timothy Findley; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Greatest starling accident: About 6 in a flock of 20,000 were sucked into a jet engine in 1960 near Boston causing it to crash, killing 62 people
Nesting range: Throughout Ontario; also in all other provinces and territories
Winter whereabouts: Most remain in nesting range; some migrate to central United States
Starling family members native to Ontario: Mockingbird, grey catbird and brown thrasher
Number of starling family species worldwide: 114
Also see: House Sparrow, Flicker, Red-winged Blackbird

© Tim Tiner and Doug Bennet, Wild City: A Guide to Nature in Urban Ontario, From Termites to Coyotes, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2004


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