The Overly Successful Starling

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European Starling
European Starling in Winter Plumage


From Middle English starling, sterling, sterlinge, from Old English starlinc, stærlinc (“starling”), from stær (“starling”) + -linc, -ling (diminutive suffix). Cognate with Middle Dutch sterlinck (“starling”). The European Starling’s scientific name is Sturnus vulgaris, which some think is very appropriate. Maybe the name is not fascinating, but the bird is.

The European Starling was first brought into the United States in the late 1800’s, but most introductions failed. But on March 16 1891, a wealthy New Yorker, Eugene Schieffelin, decided to import the starlings into New York City’s Central Park where they thrived. Why starlings? Schieffelin had a passion for the birds of Shakespeare and in Henry IV, Part 1, Hotspur wants to drive King Henry nuts by having a starling repeat the name of Hotspur’s brother-in-law Mortimer, whom Henry refuses to ransom out of prisoner status. “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ ” Hotspur says. Shakespeare actually mentions nearly 600 bird species in his plays, but the starling is the “star”. Closely related to mynahs and mockingbirds the European Starling is quite an adept mimic and can mimic the songs of at least 20 other species.

The starling began to breed almost immediately in Central Park. By 1950 starlings could be found all the way to California, north of Hudson Bay and south to Mexico.  Today their populations number over 200 million.
Starlings are adaptable and will eat almost anything, including fruit, seeds, insects, worms, grubs, millipedes and spiders, and occasionally lizards, frogs and snails. They are usually seen foraging on open mown lawns, pastures etc.
Male and female starlings look similar: glossy black with purplish and greenish iridescences on the head, back and breast.  Juveniles are grayish brown. Starlings molt their feathers in the fall at which time they become spotted as their new feathers have white tips. By spring, these tips wear away, and the bird is glossy and unspotted. It’s an unusual act that scientists term “wear plumage.” In the fall their beak is brownish black but as the wear plumage occurs, the pigment on the bill wears off and the beak turns a bright yellow. In flight you can easily recognize them with their right-triangle-shaped wings.
Their beaks are short, and can open strongly, differing from other birds with substantial muscles to close their beaks.  The strong opening beak is an adaptation for probing in the soil for insects and worms, pushing rocks and soil out of the way.
Generally, the European Starling is a problem for other birds and especially to farmers. Starlings damage crops and because they nest in cavities and are aggressive, they outcompete many native bird species and drive them from their nest sites. They can also become a major nuisance in cities. As an exotic species they are not protected by the migratory bird act, so they can be humanely dispatched.

More about the starling can be had at Wikipedia.

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