For the Birds Radio Program: European Starling

Original Air Date: Feb. 4, 1987

If only Shakespeare had been a better birder, starlings would never have come to America.

Duration: 3′55″


European Starlings

(Recording of a European Starling)

“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak/ Nothing but ‘Mortimer.’” That’s what William Shakespeare’s Hotspur says in Part I of Henry the Fourth. (I, iii, 223-224) It sounds pretty innocuous, and Shakespeare was right–it wouldn’t be hard to teach a starling to say “Mortimer.” But that brief line written 390 years ago has cost the United States billions of dollars in damage to buildings and crops, and even made the city of Englewood, New Jersey, cut down most of its shade trees. Why? All because a group of Shakespearean fanatics took it into their heads to introduce to the U.S. every bird ever mentioned by Shakespeare. On March 16, 1890, these literary loons set 60 starlings free in Central Park in New York City. Within weeks, a pair of starlings was nesting under the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History. They were breeding in southern Wisconsin by 1928, and first showed up in Minnesota in 1929 in Fillmore County. Obeying what they probably perceived as a biblical mandate, starlings increased and multiplied until they are now the most abundant bird in North America.

No doubt about it, the European Starling is a pest. At one Idaho cattle feedlot, huge flocks of starlings consume 15-20 tons of potatoes a day–more than even the cattle can eat. Their huge flocks are both a nuisance and a health hazard in cities. People have been waging war on them since the beginning, but the birds always win. In Washington, D.C., electricians strung wires atop the Capitol Building’s Corinthian columns and turned on the current. The shocking experience did make the starlings relocate–but just to the ledges of nearly buildings. The city of Providence, Rhode Island, lit up the sky with Roman candles to scare off the starlings, but the shell-shocked birds returned almost immediately–with reinforcements. The residents of Englewood, New Jersey, cut down most of their shade trees, but no dice–starlings like roosting on buildings just as much as in trees.

It’s not even as if the starling were an attractive bird. It’s short-tailed and dumpy, with an oily look to its iridescent feathers. This time of year it’s speckled and has a yellow bill. By spring the bill darkens and the speckles fade. It doesn’t hop like a jay or run like a robin–instead, it has a clumsy, waddling gait.

But the starling has its good points, too. It eats enormous quantities of Japanese beetles, cutworms, and other pests. It’s a fine mimic, belonging to the same family as the myna. It can imitate any bird song, a car horn, even the playground screams of children. And although it looks ugly on the ground, it’s appearance is much improved in the air. The name ‘starling’ means little star in Anglo Saxon– probably from the bird’s silhouette in flight. And the starling’s maneuvers when flying in a flock are truly incredible. If you’ve ever noticed a huge flock of birds wheeling and turning rapidly in perfect unison in farm country–all silvery one moment, disappearing the next as the angle of light changes, and then suddenly reappearing–those were starlings. They’re among the most intelligent of birds, too–Konrad Lorenz recommends them highly as pets. The French prefer to eat them– wrapped in bacon, roasted, and served on toast.

(Recording of a Starling)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”