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Starlings are more interesting than people think

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By Sylvia Brockner

Nearly every winter just after a snow storm, people call me to ask about a beautiful bird at their feeder. It is described in several ways, but usually along the lines that it is mostly black with a lot of purple and green on it, and its whole body is spattered with white stars. When I tell them it sounds like a starling, almost without exception, they reply, “Why, no, it’s not a starling. It’s beautiful.”

Eventually, I convince them to look at a starling in winter plumage in a reliable field guide, and if they still think their bird is not a starling, to call me back. I seldom hear from them again, but occasionally they will call back and say, “You were right. It does look like a starling, but I never knew they were so pretty.”

Most people don’t really know the starling, and few people look at it closely. They consider starlings to be pests, not worth their bother or wasting time on. Actually, the European starling, which is its proper name, is a very interesting bird. Starlings were introduced into the United States when a few were released in Central Park in New York City in 1890 or 1891. Whether they were an accidental escape or a deliberate release, I do not know, but I can remember that when I was a child, they were a pest in Western New York. Everyone said they had been brought in to help control the Japanese beetle, which had become a serious crop pest in the northeast. Whether they helped in this control or not, I do not know, but the infamous DDT and many other chemical insecticides came into being about that time and most probably played a part in the beetle demise.

Starlings, however, thrived in America and by 1940, they had crossed the country and by 1960, only 70 years after their release, they had reached the Pacific coast and Alaska. There are several subspecies in Europe and Asia where they have developed in different geographic areas over the centuries. They are also more migratory where they migrate to Africa in winter. Here, they are less migratory, but they do migrate out of the more northern part of their range and drop south to warmer areas for the winter, and in the mountain areas they migrate down the mountains to winter in the valley or on the plains.

We had a starling that nested in our yard for several years. Starlings are closely related to myna birds and are very good mimics. I could always tell when ours returned each year in March for it must have wintered near a chicken farm and had learned the cock-a-doodle-do of a rooster. It was a perfectly clear rooster crowing, but being a much smaller bird, it did not have the volume of sound that a rooster has. It did seem strange, however, to hear a rooster crowing in a pine tree. He returned for about six springs and then we heard him no more. Something must have happened to him over winter. I missed his marvelous imitations and hoped he might come back, but he never did.

Starlings are often seen in big flocks of hundreds of birds, usually mixed in with native blackbirds. These flocks are interesting to study because especially in winter, you will see various plumages of all of the birds. Starlings are brown for a short period of time in their juvenile plumage, then they acquire their black adult plumage with white edges on the feathers. This winter plumage is where the name starling comes from for these white edges do give the appearance of stars on the black body. As winter progresses, the white edge of the feathers is worn off, and by February they are nearly all black. By March, they are in full breeding plumage with shining black feathers that are iridescent with glistening purple and green.

Starlings have a comic waddling walk and a short tail. Their wings are almost triangular in flight and much shorter and broader than those of the blackbirds. The next time you see a large flock of what look to be blackbirds, stop your car and really look at them. My husband Bill often spent hours doing this and as a result, he learned to know all their various plumages and enjoyed looking for something unusual in the flock.

We still have a few breeding starlings in our neighborhood for several of our neighbors have horses, and starlings are experts at finding insects in manure piles. They will soon be returning to their breeding areas and may be seen in big winter flocks in many areas on the plains, especially near feed lots. When they return here, I seldom see them at the feeders until we have a big March snow. When they cannot find weed seeds or insects because of the deep snow, they turn to feeders for a few days.