European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Photo courtesy of USGS

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The European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) originally bred in Eurasia and wintered as far afield as North Africa, regions where it is still found today. It has been introduced worldwide, both for its preference for insects to control pests and for its entertaining ability to mimic a wide variety of sounds.

The starling is a chunky, robin-sized bird with a short, squared tail; short, pointed wings; black eyes; pinkish legs and a dark pointed bill, except at breeding time when its bill is bright yellow. Males and females look similar. Starlings molt once a year, in fall. New feathers are tipped with white, giving the birds a speckled appearance. Over winter, the white wears off, leaving an iridescent purple-blue-black-green plumage.

Starlings nest in tree holes, building or rock crevices and in bird houses built for desirable native species such as bluebirds. Their introduction to the United States has been widely lamented because of their competition with native birds for nesting sites, the agricultural damage they cause (according to online losses are estimated to be $800 million a year), and the racket and droppings emanating from a huge assembly of the birds.

The story goes that we have Shakespeare to thank for our U.S. starlings. The American Acclimatization Society was founded in 1871 to bring to the U.S “such foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting.” An influential member, New York City pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin, was determined to bring every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to the U.S. In Henry IV, Part I, Hotspur asks King Henry to ransom his brother-in-law, Mortimer, who has been captured. As Mortimer is a potential rival to the throne, Henry refuses. An infuriated Hotspur vows to annoy Henry mercilessly by having “a starling … taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer’” in Henry’s ear. In 1890 and 1891 the Society released between 60 and 100 birds in Central Park. Today more than 200,000,000 roam the continent, a testament to their adaptability.

In Europe, the starling has been kept as a caged pet since antiquity. Mozart purchased a pet starling on May 27, 1784 and kept it until its death in 1787. Along with the purchase, he recorded in his diary 17 notes of music the starling “sang,” along with the comment, “That was beautiful.” The notes begin the final movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453. The mystery is unresolved concerning whether Mozart borrowed the tune from the starling, or whether the starling was already familiar with Mozart’s concerto. It had been completed on April 12, 1784 but had not been performed in public by the time of the purchase. The starling’s version converted a G natural into a G sharp.

Starlings seem to love music but have a tendency to sing off-key, as well as to incorporate whistles and to combine songs. Researcher Meredith West reported that one starling “whistled the first line of ‘Dixie,’ frequently interjecting lines from ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Starlings are fairly faithful to their breeding sites and aggressively defend them. During fall, the male will give out a “crowing”call of continuous chortling. In spring, he will actively engage in wing-waving with a simultaneous “squeal call” near his nest hole, until a female takes notice. He will clean out the nest hole and make an obvious show of bringing in nesting material. When the pair is mated for the season, the female undoes all of he male’s work and brings in her own miscellaneous materials, carelessly forming them into a nest. They fly as a pair to the nighttime roost. Eggs resemble robin eggs and the average clutch size is four. Once the last egg is laid, both sexes incubate them for 12 days, but at night, only the male will fly off to the roost. Both sexes care for nestlings for 23 days. After fledging, the young may stay near the nest for about a week and then leave to join enormous flocks of other dusty-brown juveniles who wander open fields and shrubby areas.
Starlings tend to feed in the same location daily. With an awkward, waddling gait, a starling will probe for invertebrates, its preferred food. It inserts its bill into the ground or a plant, springing it open and digging. During winter starlings feed on seeds or berries.

Roosts have been estimated to contain as many as 3 million birds. Daniel Butler, of Shropshire, England, describes the rendezvous, which occurs in the evening a little before sunset as the small groups of birds join others before settling down in a tree or building for the night: “A ‘murmuration’ of starlings, as this phenomenon is known, must be one of the most magical, yet underrated, wildlife spectacles on display in winter. Impenetrable as the flock’s movements might seem to the human eye, the underlying maths is comparatively straightforward. Each bird strives to fly as close to its neighbours as possible, instantly copying any changes in speed or direction. As a result, tiny deviations by one bird are magnified and distorted by those surrounding it, creating rippling, swirling patterns. In other words, this is a classic case of mathematical chaos (larger shapes composed of infinitely varied smaller patterns). Whatever the science, however, it is difficult for the observer to think of it as anything other than some vast living entity.”
As non-native birds, starlings are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and may legally be eliminated or raised as pets. Film of A “Spectacular Starling Flock” can be accessed through YouTube.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.