Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: European Starling Sturnus vulgaris

Description:

All 200 million plus European Starlings in North America today are descendants of 100 individuals released by Shakespeare enthusiasts in Central Park in the 1890’s.  The westward development of North America created their favoured open habitat as well as provided cereal grains for food.  This increased breeding success making the European Starling probably the most successful bird on the continent. 

Now, ranging from Alaska to Mexico starlings are highly gregarious and are often found roosting and feeding in large flocks, especially within their winter range. Often considered very aggressive and to be pests, they are actually fairly wary and difficult to approach.

Identification:

General: Chunky, medium sized birds with strong legs and feet, starlings have short tails and long slender, conical beaks with sharp tips.  Their short, square tail and triangular wings give a flight profile like a star (giving them their name).  Starlings are 19 to 22 cm long with a wingspan of 37 to 42 cm and weigh 60 to 90 g. 

From a distance, starlings appear black, but in the summer their plumage is shiny purplish-green iridescent and in the winter is brown and covered with white spots.  This breeding appearance is acquired by wear as the fresh white feather tips wear off to expose glossy black. 

Adult Male: Sexes are similar; however males are less spotted below than females.  In summer the male’s bill is yellow with a blue-grey base and in winter is black. 

Adult female: Sexes are similar; however females are more spotted below than males.  In summer the female’s bill is yellow overall and in winter is black. 

Juvenile: Juvenile starlings are drab grey-brown overall.  After their first molt they more resemble adults although do retain their greyish head through the early part of the winter.  Juvenile bills are black. 

Similar Species:  Although the starling’s structure is distinctive, they are sometimes confused with blackbirds who can co-occur in large flocks.  Blackbirds however are more slender bodied with longer tails and pointier wings.  Flight profile of starlings can be confused with waxwings, meadowlarks, or purple martins.     

Behaviour:

European Starlings eat a variety of animal and plant food, mainly insects and other invertebrates, but also fruit, nectar, grain, and eggs of other birds.  They are often seen foraging on the ground probing with their bill as they have specially developed muscles that allow them to pry open their bills while probing in the soil.  They therefore can capture prey unavailable to other foragers.  This process is called gaping.  This is one possible reason why starlings can winter in temperate areas where other insectivores can not.

Starlings are great vocal mimics reproducing other species songs as well as inanimate, mechanical noises like squeaks, grinding and sirens.  Generally, their song is rich and varied, and often incorporates elements from Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), meadowlarks (genus Sturnella) and others.

Habitat: European Starlings are found in virtually all human modified habitats, occurring commonly in urban centres but also in woodland edge habitats.

Information:

Most Starlings are resident, although wander widely if conditions are poor.  They are partly migratory as some individuals migrate in some years but not in others and most or all birds withdraw from northern or high-elevation sites.

European Starlings nest in a variety of cavities including woodpecker holes, birdhouses, and crevices in buildings. The male selects the nest site and initiates nest-building.  The female then selects the male and completes the nest by lining it with grass, twigs, forbs, straw and the like.

Producing two, occasionally three broods, starling females incubate 60 percent of the time during the day and 100 percent at night.  The male incubates only a small part of the day.  Starlings are generally monogamous but in many populations males change mates between broods.  The second mate receives little help with the young.  They defend only the immediate nest and small area around it and will nest semi-colonially if suitable nesting sites are clustered together.

Due to their recent arrival, individual European Starlings are all closely related, showing little genetic variation.

Conservation Status:

Although their numbers have declined recently, especially in Canada, European Starling is one of the most abundant species in North America. They do pose a threat to some cavity-nesting native bird populations as they can aggressively compete for the same nest sites.  They are also considered pests by some farmers and city managers.  As with all introduced species, conservation concerns focus on the potential impacts on native birds.

Capture Rates


The European Starling does not breed at Colony Farm. Low capture rates (2010-2012; standardized as birds captured per 100 net hours) in February and again in June, July and August occur during winter flocking and dispersal of young from nearby residential areas.

 

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