All of the European Starlings found today in North America, and they number in the 200 million range-are descendants of approximately 100 birds introduced in New York City's Central Park in the early 1890s. Starlings, as members of the Sturnidae family, are cousins to the Mynah bird and are outstanding mimics. Accordingly, they have been popular as cage birds in Europe for years. Shakespeare aficionados will recall that the starling figured in Henry IV: "Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer'...", and this bird is also mentioned in others of his works.
The first attempts to introduce the European Starling to the United States from 1872 to 1890 were unsuccessful. After repeated efforts to introduce the bird, it was finally successfully brought to New York City. It was on March 16 1891, when a wealthy New Yorker with a strong passion for the birds of Shakespeare, Eugene Schieffelin, decided to import the starlings into New York City’s Central Park. Schieffelin also imported bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks; however, these birds were not as successful as the starling. The starling began to breed almost immediately after being released in Central Park. The first recorded nest was under the attic of the American Museum of Natural History, which some people perceive as a sort of in-your-face gesture. Since the introduction of the starlings 100 years ago, the European Starling has quickly spread across the continent. The European Starling’s ability to exploit, adapt to, and outwit humans has led to the incredible range stretching from the Arctic to New Zealand.
The starling is a European native that breeds as far north as the British Isles, northern Norway, and Russia and as far south as northern Italy and southern France. The progress of this species in North America-with what may have been the first nest site under the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City-has been nothing short of spectacular. Wintering birds reached northern Florida by 1918, and breeding birds were found in Ontario and Maine by the 1920s. By the 1940s, this species reached the Pacific, and in the 1970s it was spotted in Alaska. The increase in range appears to have been made primarily by birds wandering outside of their range when it wasn't breeding season, because the first breeding records lagged behind the first fall or winter sightings by about five years. Once they arrived in a new area, however, the population of starlings rapidly increased.
Starlings are associated with man-altered environments, foraging in open country on short, mown, or grazed grassland while avoiding woodlands, arid chaparral, and deserts. Starlings exploit a variety of food sources, taking invertebrates, fruits and berries, grain, and temporarily abundant food such as animal feed or garbage.
Throughout the year, Starlings associate in flocks and form communal roosts at night-even during breeding season. These roosts are larger during fall and winter, when roosts of more than a million birds are not uncommon. Starlings like to return to the same area to eat each day, usually early and late in the day, while traveling at other times in large flocks to more abundant but ephemeral food sources. Migratory behavior appeared in North American starlings shortly after their introduction; they are at least partly migratory throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and are mostly migratory in the Midwest and Great Lakes area. South of 40-degrees latitude they are nonmigratory. Starlings are diurnal migrants and move out of northern areas, following major river valleys or the coastal plain, between September and early December. Spring migration takes place from mid-February to the end of March.
These highly social birds do not defend a territory beyond their cavity nest site, but males are very protective of their mates. They compete aggressively for nesting sites and may evict the occupants of desired holes, including the woodpeckers that excavated them. They often out-compete other hole-nesting species such as Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Great Crested Flycatchers, and woodpeckers. Starlings usually return to nest in the same site every year.
Both males and females (especially in the fall) can sing and make a variety of calls, whistles, and more complex songs. The males typically sing two types of songs, one consisting primarily of loud whistles and the other a so-called “warbling song” that often incorporates mimicry of other species [including humans!]. An individual bird can mimic up to 20 species, including Eastern Wood Pewee, Killdeer, and Meadowlark songs. It has been observed that longer songs are more successful in attracting a mate.
European Starlings are omnivorous. They can make a meal out of a tremendous variety of food, which aids their survival in cities. Starling often feed on insects, offal, domestic scraps, and various other foods. They eat insects with a special method, known as the ‘zirkelin method.’ The secret of this method as well as the success of the starlings lies in an adaptation in the musculature of its beak. The muscles attached to the starling’s bill allow the bird to pry open grass, loose soil, or leaf litter to uncover grubs and insect eggs. Another advantage in the bodily structure of the starling, which gives the starling a greater edge, is found in the formation of its skull. The skull is particularly pinched and narrow in the front so that when the beak is open, the starling’s eyes, which are normally on the side of the head, shift forward and the bird has a good view of what is exposed by the action.
Description: European Starlings are stocky birds with short, square-tipped tails and pointed wings, approximately 7-1/2 to 8-1/2 inches long. During breeding season, they can be distinguished quickly from blackbirds by their long, pointed, yellow bill; blackbirds have dark bills.
Both sexes are iridescent black. The sheen is mostly green-tinted on the back, breast, and belly; mixed green and purple on the crown; and purple on the nape and throat. Body feathers have creamy or white triangular terminal markings that are lost through wear so that by breeding season, adults are entirely glossy black, without white spots. First-year birds are more heavily spotted than adults. Following the breeding season, in late summer and fall, the yellow bill darkens to brownish gray or black in almost all birds.
The sexes are very similar with only a few differences in detail. The male's eyes are uniformly brown, whereas the female's eyes have is a lighter ring around the outer edge. A female's bill is pinkish at the base of the lower mandible whereas a male's bill is bluish or blue gray. Underwing coverts are black in males and brown or gray in females.
Copyright© 1999 Cornell Lab of Ornithology
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