The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Starlings, The Norway Rats of the Bird World
by Ro Wauer

The non-native starling is one of the most aggressive and offensive bird in North America. It will readily replace many of our native cavity-nesting songbirds if given the opportunity, and as soon as the native songbird moves out it will stake a claim to the empty nest. An example of this comes from purple martins that may be driven out of its nesting box by the aggressive starlings, or as soon as the martin house is vacated starlings may move in to nest. It is extremely important that those of us with martin houses take the house down or fill the entry holes as soon as the martins are finished nesting. If not, the non-native starlings or non-native house sparrows will take over.

Starlings, or properly known as European starlings, were imported into the United States about 100 years ago by a New Yorker who decided it was a good idea to introduce all the birds mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare. The starling was one of those birds. About 80 individuals were imported from Great Britain. And progeny of that original introduction has spread all across the Continent, from the East Coast to the West Coast, north to Alaska, and throughout most of Mexico.

The key to their success is that it can take over niches previously filled by many other birds. They possess the behavior and structural advantages that make the takeovers possible. Not only are they strong and aggressive, but they readily fight with other birds, and they seldom loose. They are tough, bulky birds with a sharp beak that can easily dominate most other songbirds. Starlings have been found to usurp nests of even larger birds, such as flickers. If there are eggs in the coveted nest, the new tenant will discard them as well.

Although nesting starlings prefer natural cavities, they will take advantage of a wide assortment of sites. They have been found to nest in attic vents, drainpipes, culverts, and even mailboxes. Starlings collect grasses to place on the bottom of their nesting cavity, and they maintain an extremely clean nest until the young develop feathers. Afterwards they give up on housekeeping, and the nest often quickly fills with parasites. It has been said that starlings can tolerate an amazingly high number of parasites; another reason that starlings should not be allowed to take over martin houses.

Other adaptations that have helped starlings adapt include their slender, tapered bill and their vision. Starlings can probe for food underground in their hunt for grub, and they also take considerably food, such as spiders and a wide assortment of insects, on the surface by stabbing them with an open bill. Their vision is also rather unique in that each eye is independent so they can look forward, backward, up and down. This helps in searching for food as well as watching for predators.

In spite of their negative values, breeding starlings are rather gorgeous birds. Their speckled plumage contains numerous buff-white dots at the tip of the bird’s feathers. Europeans regarded these dots as stars, thus the bird’s common name. In spring, the plumage takes on an iridescent sheen, and the bill turns from a dull brown to bright yellow color. They are bulky birds with a short tail and rounded head. All and all, breeding birds are gorgeous creatures. It is too bad that they so impact on our native songbirds!

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