Jul
08

Those #$?! Starlings – Still and Forever

The little house sparrow was smart, or lucky, enough to build her current nest up under a spot over our deck which was too tight for the starlings to raid. Thus she and hubby have had a relatively peaceful time of rearing youngsters this spring.

That, however, has done nothing to discourage those @#!? starlings from swarming our cherry trees and about anything else they could find. The yard seems to be entertaining more of them this year than any year in the last couple decades. Maybe, as one of my Homeys has observed, we just got lucky this year.

Honestly, I have yet to decide if I loathe them or admire them, but they are always captivating.

Starlings have richly earned their pest status. Around many airports they are seen as “feathered bombs” or “feathered bullets.”  During fall flocking (check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmO4Ellgmd0 or www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8Prw9AZ9jw), a hundred thousand or more of them may literally overwhelm trees or buildings, breaking limbs, and whitewashing walls with feces. Stone, metal and machinery all suffer damage from nests and droppings. The droppings in some areas of the country have been found to contain bacteria, fungi spores and parasites, and nesting materials may host a handful of diseases. A flock of the birds may wipe out entire new growths of garden or farm seedlings. The starling has become one of the most costly and obnoxious birds in North America.

European starlings have long been associated with humans, of course. Aristotle and Pliny described them, Romans taught them to mimic speech and Will Shakespeare greatly admired them.

The charm that captivated our forebears is still clearly evident. Even with raspy voices, they mimic nearly 60 U.S. bird species. In fact, the calls we identify as killdeer, nighthawks, meadowlarks and warblers are often the play of European starlings. Their whistles, squeals and chuckles entertain us. Now and again we may actually hear their own calls – the rising then falling “hoooee…” or that harsh “jeeer.”

There are several stories about how many birds were brought to New York City’s Central Park and how many time it was tried before the birds actually survived. The most plausible story I have found is that of eccentric drug manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin, who released some 60 European starlings imported from England in 1890 and another 40 in 1891. Schieffelin was among a throng of Shakespeare lovers at the time who had the romantic notion to introduce every bird mentioned by Shakespeare into this part of the world. Skylarks, song thrushes and others failed, but starlings’ success is history – and often used as an example of how noble intentions can become disasters when folks mess with nature.

The first confirmed flock reached the Front Range of the Rockies in February 1937. By 1950, they were in Paradise and along the Pacific itself. In 100 years, those 100 birds became 200 million – a third of the world’s starling population.

Starlings are well suited to making more starlings, too. They will lay their four to six inch-plus eggs (pale bluish or greenish white with some brown marking) in a nest in any handy birdhouse or cavity, even if occupied – letting other birds rear their young. Once chicks are feathered, since they resist most any parasite, in most any concentration; more starlings reach adulthood than almost any other cavity-nesters.  They are eating machines; five youngsters may require nearly 300 feeding trips a day. Bachelor males often help out with feeding chores, and guard nests while parents are away. Males may father three broods a year.

The bird is better able to survive winter (and hunt more efficiently year-round) than others, with a bill designed to pry open and separate vegetation. Further, as the bill opens, the eyes move forward, toward each other, providing binocular vision, likely aiding in finding insects and larvae hidden in vegetation.

The Science Education Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association requires the following. Its scientific name is Sturnus vulgaris. It is blackbird-sized, six inches long, reddish-brown breast, and brown back (winter plumage is speckled). It has a blue-black head and long yellow bill during the breeding season into summer, turning dark brown the rest of the year. It lives everywhere (city parks, farms, suburbs) and eats fruits, berries, seeds and insects. (Everything you ever wanted to know about starlings is at www.sialis.org/starlingbio.htm.)

These are highly prolific non-native, non-game, non-protected birds. Given that status, starling nests and eggs are destroyed, the birds are shot, and flocks of up to a million are treated to loud noises and/or poisoned. Many of those huge nesting flocks are bombed, or sprayed, with soapy water (thus dissolving feather oils, so they die of hypothermia). If they particular vex you, check out DFW’s wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/living/, for actions you might take – note, though, that however vexed you may be, starlings are not even in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s top 15 pest species.

Best of luck. From now into winter, millions of starlings will be eliminated. Next year, there will still be 200 million starlings in North America.

Happy summer.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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