Starlings: Fascinating Garden-variety Dinosaurs
by R. Gary Raham: My wife Sharon and I raised Shakespeare one spring in the 1980s. Shakespeare was a starling. I classified the project as research since I was writing a book called Dinosaurs in the Garden and starlings, like all birds, can claim small theropod dinosaurs as their direct ancestors. Starlings are considered pests in the United States because they disrupt local ecosystems, collect in large raucous masses, and spread disease. Sound like any neighbors you know? Maybe that’s why we love to hate them.
However, in 1890 and 1891, an amateur ornithologist named Eugene Scheifflin thought he was honoring the Bard by introducing to North America a bird mentioned in Henry IV, Part I. In less than one long human lifetime starlings spread from the eves of the American Museum of Natural History to the west coast. I suspect they visit your garden, as they do mine. Even if you hate them for their ruthless usurpation of native birds, feel free to learn from them, or even grudgingly admire their rugged adaptability.
Starlings can fool you with their shifting appearance from youth to age and from one season to the next. Shakespeare started out mouse brown in color with a dark bill until his fall molt. Then new feathers emerged, tipped with white, giving him a speckled appearance. His bill turned yellow with a steel blue base. (Females sport duller yellow bills that are pink at the base.) Shakespeare as a full adult strutted about his cage adorned with black feathers that shimmered with green and purple iridescence.
One needs a permit or license to rehabilitate, hunt or trap most birds in Colorado. I was able to raise Shakespeare from a hatchling because the Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not protect the likes of starlings, English sparrows, or pigeons.
Starlings will purloin dog food when available. More typically, they use their stout beaks to dig insects from the soil and nab seeds from the bird feeder—often bullying other bird species. Watching behavior in the yard and at the feeder can be nearly as entertaining as people watching. Starling swarming behavior can even cause your jaw to drop—but more on that in a moment.
Like myna birds and parrots, starlings mimic other birds and people with great success. Fifth century B.C. Greeks kept starlings as cage birds. Pliny described one individual bird that spoke Greek and Latin “and moreover practiced diligently and spoke new phrases every day.” Impressive. I feel like an under-achiever.
Here are some other behaviors one might note in the garden:
Bill wipe: A starling rapidly and repeatedly wipes its bill on either side of a branch in a gesture of appeasement.
Fly-up: Two birds fly up while stabbing and kicking each other—Usually while fighting over food.
Sidling: One bird (usually male) moves sideways on a branch, forcing a competitor off the branch.
Staring: Upright stance, crown feathers raised, two birds stare at each other. The one with an open beak and head held higher is more apprehensive.
Wing flicking: Tips of wings are extended and rapidly flicked. This may be associated with a squeal call or mobbing call.
And speaking of mobs, starlings seem to wear out their welcome quickly in human communities by roosting in enormous numbers—sometimes in flocks of a quarter million individuals. They aren’t fussy about location. Stands of cattail, reed, and alder will do, as will those of pine, cedar, maple, and mixed deciduous trees. They may roost under bridges, and on buildings. Moreover, if they like a spot, they may move in for years or even decades.
At first blush, hanging around in large groups only appears to advertise a predator buffet, but the odds of a predator picking off any one individual is small. More bird ears elicit more alarm calls. Besides, if your prospective lunch has a few thousand close friends who are willing to defend her, you might consider dining elsewhere.
I promised something jaw-dropping. Imagine thousands of black birds rising into the sky in a cloud, moving with the coordinated grace of a team of synchronized swimmers. Such starling swarms are called murmurations, a delightful word to say, and even a more delightful event to witness, as they weave and twist across the sky. Scientists are still a bit unsure how all that impromptu coordination is achieved.
Shakespeare never whispered the secret to either Sharon or me.
Eventually, we decided to let Shakespeare go. I thought he might linger a bit in homage to all the free room and board we provided, but he never looked back. He opportunistically snatched freedom without regret.
Perhaps Eugene Scheifflin could have found a better way to honor the Bard. As it is, starlings will most likely be around for the long haul. I acknowledge their faults while admiring their spunk and beauty.
I suspect it may be almost as hard being a starling as it is being a human. We’ll just have to see which of our species does the best at surviving our pestilential qualities.
Gary Raham writes and illustrates both science fact and science fiction. Keep in touch with his work at https://www.rgaryraham.com.