Sunday, December 19, 2010

Starlings

Starling- from Wikimedia Commons
Francis Skalicky has an interesting article on starlings in the Thursday News-Leader.  As usual, he has several interesting facts to add to the common knowledge.

The European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) has thrived in the United States since its arrival.  These "dark-colored birds with iridescent tints of green and purple" would be considered attractive if they were uncommon. Wikipedia says that they were introduced by Eugene Schieffelin who released 60 of them in Central Park in 1890.  The usual story was that he was trying to introduce the all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare.  There is apparently no concrete evidence to support this oft told story, and he may have been using them for insect control as he had done 30 years prior with his release of English Sparrows.  Either way, his 60 birds now have over 140 million living offspring now.

One unique trait of starlings is their beak musculature.  They have powerful muscles for opening their beak, unlike other birds.  This allows them to plunge their beak into the ground and open it up to find extra food.  The European Starling is further unique from all other starlings in its ability to rotate its eyes forward to look into the hole it is creating.  No wonder they have been so successful in competing with other species.


How do starlings cause damage?* 
  • Consuming or damaging cultivated fruits such as grapes, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, figs, apples and cherries.  
  • Competing with native cavity-nesting birds such as bluebirds, flickers, and other woodpeckers, purple martins and wood ducks for nest sites.  There is speculation that Red Bellied Woodpeckers are moving to more rural areas to avoid starling competition.
  • Pulling sprouting grains, particularly winter wheat, and eating the planted seed. 
  • Selectively eating the high-protein supplements that are often added to livestock rations. 
  • Damaging turf on golf courses as they probe for grubs.
  • Transferring disease such as histoplasmosis to humans and transmissible gastroenteritis virus (TGE) from one livestock facility to another. 
  • Causing  6% of bird aircraft strikes along with blackbirds.   In 1962, an Electra aircraft in Boston collided with a flock of starlings soon after takeoff, resulting in a crash landing and 62 fatalities. 
Why have they out competed other birds?  Their ability to pry open the ground and look for insects in winter is felt to be a major factor, giving them an advantage over other birds.  Their aggressive eviction of other cavity nesting birds from available breeding spaces and their large flocks which deter many predators are other possible factors.  What ever it is, it looks like these European visitors are here to stay.

* see Economic Damage
Skalicky's article has a lot more information including theories on their flocking tendency.

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