Starlings: the bad, and yes, the good

Contributed photoAs I listen to the cacophony of invasive European starlings high in the trees of my yard, I am irritated by the noise they make — but also feel sorry for them. Nobody likes them, except probably the raptors and housecats who eat them.

Understandably, they are among the least popular of birds in this part of the world.

In 1890 New Yorker Eugene Schieffel, who loved Shakespeare, decided it would be cool to release in North America every species of bird mentioned in the Bard’s writing. He released about 100 starlings from England in New York’s Central Park.

It was the mimicking ability of starlings that inspired Shakespeare. They can learn the calls of up to 20 different species, including the killdeer, meadowlark, red-tailed hawk, American robin, Northern flicker and others.

You’ll find mention of starlings in Henry the Fourth Part One. According to Earth Wise, “. . . the character Hotspur considers using the starling’s voice to madden his opponent, the king, who refused to pay a ransom on Edmund Mortimer.

I can understand why Shakespeare chose the noise of starlings to drive the king mad because they produce a squeal-chip-and-fizz sound that nearly drives me to distraction. (However, Shakespeare wasn’t thinking of the birds’ natural call; Hotspur says he wishes to train a starling to say the name “Mortimer” over and over. Seems like he needn’t have gone to the trouble — a starling simply “singing” its natural song would be bad enough.)

Now look what 122 years has wrought. There are more than 200 million European starlings in North America when once there were none. They are blamed for damaging crops, including cherries and grapes, as well as endangering air travel. In fact, flocks of them caused some of the deadliest bird strikes in aviation: a 1960 civilian crash in Boston that killed 62 people and a 1996 military cargo plane crash that killed 34 in the Netherlands.

In an effort to reduce the starling population, municipal governments and agricultural growers have used sound guns, bird-proof housing, traps and repellents – all with limited success.

European starlings are also vilified for driving indigenous species of birds from their habitats. (When I worked for a county government in Washington we learned that the state was once so concerned about starlings overtaking native bird populations that it  recommended people shoot them. Somehow that didn’t seem an effective solution.)

Because starlings are cavity breeders, they take over the nests of cavity-nesting birds such as flickers, bluebirds and, in the eastern half of the United States, the great crested flycatcher.

However, according to All About Birds, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “a study in 2003 found few actual effects on populations of 27 native species. Only sapsuckers showed declines due to starlings; other species appeared to be holding their own against the invaders.”

If you’d like to see a great display of what a flock of European Starlings do — in this case, in Europe, where they belong  — watch this video taken in Great Britain. These shape-shifting flocks are called murmurations.

On another positive note, the Chipper Woods Bird Observatory notes that starlings are highly effective at consuming insects considered by some to be pests, such as clover beetles, cutworms, Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, ants, wasps, and other insects.

And since the phase-out of DDT, starlings have been found to help restore populations of peregrine falcons in Washington state. In a 2003 Christian Science Monitor article, a biologist with the Falcon Research Group noted that of 30 peregrines’ nests examined nearly all contained starlings as one of the main prey items.

Because starlings are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, it’s nice to know their presence is not always 100 percent negative. But, unfortunately, their negatives generally outweigh their positives in this part of the world.  And if you have flocks of starlings you’d still like to banish from your property, visit All About Birds for tips.

© Tracie Hornung and Animals of the Gorge, 2012

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