For the Birds Radio Program: European Starling
Laura explains why starlings are such a problem in the United States, but she didn’t have to look far to find someone who loves them.
When 60 European Starlings were brought to America 100 years ago by a Shakespeare club, no one suspected that they would soon become the most abundant birds on the continent. Starlings eat mostly insects on short grass fields during summer, and on much of their summer range they’re actually of economic value, eating enormous numbers of cutworms and other pests. In New Zealand, where they were also introduced, people set out starling boxes the way we set out bluebird houses.
But starlings also eat large amounts of fruit, especially grapes and cherries. The droppings from the enormous flocks of them that collect on farms and in cities acidify the soil beneath their roosts, killing whole stands of trees. And the noise from large urban flocks drives some people crazy. So for decades after their introduction, Americans tried to exterminate them. In Washington, D.C., electricians strung wires atop the Capitol Building’s Corinthian columns and turned on the current. The shocking experience simply moved the starlings to other nearby buildings. Providence, Rhode Island tried Roman candles, but the starlings returned with reinforcements. Englewood, New Jersey decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater by cutting down most of their shade trees. But no solution made even a dent in the starling population.
If starlings are a problem for American people, they’re an even greater one for American birds. Starlings have a unique muscle at the gape of their beak which puts the force of action not on clamping the beak shut, but on opening it. So starlings can stick their bill into soil and pry it open, exposing soil organisms. This feeding adaptation also comes in handy when a 2 1/2 ounce starling steals a 5 or 6 ounce flicker’s nest cavity. When the flicker tries to argue, the starling just jabs the flicker’s head once and opens his beak.
Starlings usurp millions of woodpeckers, bluebirds, Great Crested Flycatchers, and other cavity nesters from their homes every year. They’ve been a major factor in the decline of Red-headed Woodpeckers. Most birdwatchers believe that the only good starling is a dead starling, but I contacted an authority who actually likes them, with good reason. Why?
They make good pets.
That’s Joe Erickson, a third grader who happens to live in my house with a pet starling named Mortimer. Joe’s had Morty for a year and a half now. In that time, Morty has learned to whistle “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Shave and a Haircut,” and the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, along with making credible imitations of our smoke alarm, a boiling teakettle, the kitchen faucet, and the neighborhood Blue Jays.
Morty is the best pet in the world because he’s friendly, tame, funny, and is a nice bird. Starlings are just like kids. I took him to school with me one day and he hated math.
That is probably not the final word on starlings, but it’s a nice one.
This is Laura Erickson,
And I’m Joe Erickson, speaking for the starlings.