Every winter, I receive a phone call or letter from someone, asking about the strange beautiful bird at a feeder. Apparently, the unusually cold weather gives starlings the drive to investigate feeders, and many people see them for the first time during the cold days of winter.
It is hard to believe that this rather colorful bird is the ordinary starling, but this comes from the fact that people don’t really look at these birds because they are so common, and it is not until one lands on their feeder that they notice this rather remarkable bird.
The European starling was introduced to this country in Central Park in New York City in 1890-91. By 1940, they had spread across the country, and it is estimated that there are more than 2 million starlings now found in every man-altered habitat across the continent and from the tip of Florida well into Alaska. Starlings like people and live where they live: cities, towns, farms, parks, etc. They are seldom seen in wild native wilderness areas.
Starlings have one molt a year. The young birds are grayish brown when they leave the nest, but soon have molted their juvenile plumage and by fall are fully molted. From September to February, they have their non-breeding plumage, which is the one that gave them their name.
The edges of these new feathers are white and make “stars” over the back and breast of the bird. This edge is worn off and usually by late February, it is gone, and the birds have their breeding plumage, which is all glossy black, no “stars,” but with a strong iridescence in shades of pink, green and amber.
Despite their beautiful iridescence, the starling cannot really be called a beautiful bird for they are short-tailed, plump and have a big yellow beak. They waddle when they walk, which has always reminded me of a clown.
In the wild, starlings eat mostly berries, fruit and insects, but find human food found in our garbage cans to be quite acceptable and therefore thrive in most areas where man is found. They nest in cavities, either manmade or natural.
Many of our buildings have ledges, etc., which make adequate nesting places, but unfortunately, starlings also take over the natural cavities that our native birds use, making life miserable for bluebirds, woodpeckers, etc.
The most interesting thing about starlings is that they roost at night in large flocks. Often these roosts are in public places where they are easy to watch. There are thousands of starlings that roost at night in the understructure of the Peace Bridge that crosses the Niagara River from Buffalo, N.Y., to Canada. It is fascinating to watch the groups arrive in the evening and to leave in the morning, for they have amazing control and never seem to bump into each other even when flying in close formation when a hawk appears.
You can also often see large groups of starlings feed on lawns where they usually find some grubs down in the grass. These they obtain by putting their sharply pointed closed beak down into the turf and then opening it to find the food they are seeking down among the clumps of grass. Try this with you index finger and thumb. It is not an easy way to get a meal.
There are 12 species of starlings in the Old World, but since our bird was introduced, there is just the one species here. It is properly known as the European starling, Sturnus vulgaris.
Starlings may not be the most beautiful bird in the world, but they are interesting, and if you can locate a roost when there are no better birds to watch, you can always watch starlings. Their calls are not particularly musical, but they are good mimics. We had one in our yard for many years that crowed like a little rooster.