Photo Essay

Seeing Spots, The Starling Bird

Starling

The common starling is a medium-sized passerine bird in the starling family, Sturnidae. It is about 20 cm (8 in) long and has glossy black plumage with a metallic sheen, which is speckled with white at some times of year. The legs are pink and the bill is black in winter and yellow in summer; young birds have browner plumage than the adults. It is a noisy bird, especially in communal roosts and other gregarious situations, with an unmusical but varied song.

The common starling has about a dozen subspecies breeding in open habitats across its native range in temperate Europe and western Asia, and it has been introduced to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, the Falkland Islands, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, South Africa and Fiji.

Because of this abundance, many people are surprised when they learn starlings are an exotic species. The story of how these birds native to Eurasia and North Africa got started here is even harder to believe.

North America's starling saga began in 1890 when Shakespeare enthusiast Eugene Schieffelin released 100 starlings in New York City's Central Park. He wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's plays into New York. Although this eccentric attempt at wildlife management sounds almost comical, many people aren't laughing today.

That seemingly insignificant release more than 100 years ago spawned a North American starling population that numbers in excess of 140 million today. This overwhelming abundance has led to a multitude of problems for both humans and native wildlife species. Before we get to those problems, here's more about the starling:

This bird is resident in southern and western Europe and southwestern Asia, while northeastern populations migrate south and west in winter within the breeding range and also further south to Iberia and North Africa. The common starling builds an untidy nest in a natural or artificial cavity in which four or five glossy, pale blue eggs are laid. These take two weeks to hatch and the young remain in the nest for another three weeks. There are normally one or two breeding attempts each year. This species is omnivorous, taking a wide range of invertebrates, as well as seeds and fruit. It is hunted by various mammals and birds of prey, and is host to a range of external and internal parasites.

Large flocks typical of this species can be beneficial to agriculture by controlling invertebrate pests; however, starlings can also be pests themselves when they feed on fruit and sprouting crops. Common starlings may also be a nuisance through the noise and mess caused by their large urban roosts. Introduced populations in particular have been subjected to a range of controls, including culling, but these have had limited success except in preventing the colonization of Western Australia.

The species has declined in numbers in parts of northern and western Europe since the 1980s due to fewer grassland invertebrates being available as food for growing chicks. Despite this, its huge global population is not thought to be declining significantly, so the common starling is classified as being of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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