European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), also known as common starlings, are an interesting disaster. Like many, I have a love/hate relationship with this non-native species. They remind me of beavers. They can cause a lot of damage, but I admire their abilities.
Starlings were imported to North America by Eugene Schieffelin. He thought it would be nice to have all the species of birds Shakespeare mentioned in his writing. Approximately 100 birds were released and adapted easily, and now, all 200 million starlings in the United States are almost completely genetically identical.
These medium-sized birds are black with an iridescent pink, orange and green sheen. Their new feathers are tipped with white, something I thought was an indication of an immature bird. Starlings experience wear molt, the disappearance of the feather tips through wear.
Murmuration, the synchronized flight starlings are well known for are one of the things that make them admirable.
They can mimic 20 species of birds and fly up to 48 miles per hours. Starlings can taste sugar, citric acid, tannins, and salt. They’re capable of impressive things…and they’re a pest that can live a very long time. The oldest known starling was banded in Tennessee. It died when it was 15 years old.
Starlings and Migration, or Year-Round Residents
A decade ago, migrating starlings were a sign of spring. The past six or seven years have been different. Starlings are here on our homestead year-round. They’ve been able to get into our hen house through a small hole in the eaves and roost there overnight. Each winter we see more starlings at the bird feeders. They scatter seed and suet worse than any others. One pair sets up housekeeping in the spring, in the same corner each year. This year, a second pair took advantage of a loose board and nested in the back wall. The first pair was ten days ahead of the second, and I’ve wondered if it’s the difference between starlings that overwintered here and others that left for the winter.
Starlings incubate four to six light green to light blue eggs for 12 days. Nests are made in holes and are a bit haphazard. Loose twigs, grass and weeds, leaves, and readily available chicken feathers cushion the bottom of the hole. A slight indentation holds the eggs. Both parents feed the young. Trips back and forth to the first nest increased daily as the babies grew. I was impressed with the number of caterpillars and grubs they found during the cold and wet spring. They also eat beetles, grasshoppers, flying insects they sometimes catch in flight, snails and spiders. They spent less time at the bird feeders while they fed the family.
Females who don’t find a mate in early spring might lay eggs in another pair’s nest. Starlings hatch two broods a year so she has a second chance later in spring or early summer.
About the time tiny peeps turned to more of a chirp in the first nest, the eggs in the second nest hatched. Opening the door each morning caused a racket of peeping, chirping, clucking, quacking and crowing. After a particularly windy storm came in from the west, the chirping all but stopped. Two of the nestlings were silent and it was noticeable. The parents’ trips slowed down and then one parent, probably the male, left. The second nest was sheltered, and both of those babies survived. I cursed the starlings when they scattered pounds of chicken food from the hopper but was sad for the lost offspring.
Starlings and Agriculture
The food starlings ruin in my hen house is nothing compared to the damage they cause in agriculture. According to BBC, the loss ads up to one billion dollars annually. Fruit trees take the biggest hit. Milk producers noticed a decline in production and tracked it back to starlings eating the cows’ grain. In 2012 the USDA killed 1.5 million birds and didn’t make a dent. Starlings aren’t a protected species, for obvious reasons.
This is the last year I’ll be conflicted over the starlings in the hen house because we’re replacing the building this year. They won’t ruin food, leave streaks of droppings down the outer wall, and they won’t provide the thought of babies, family, and pest control. The first nest had one successful fledgling and the second nest had two. And that’s that. They’ll have to move back to the trees where they belong. Or don’t belong at all.