There is a bird flying around our cities, towns, and farms that many people know simply as a starling. To be precise, however, its full name is European starling.
Columbus didn’t find any starlings when he came to the New World. They did not sing for George Washington and the Continental Army, they didn’t listen in on the Gettysburg Address, and even as late as 1877 there were no starlings here to listen to Thomas Edison’s first phonograph.
It was not until 1890, when 60 of the birds were released into Central Park in New York City, that the European starling became a citizen of the United States. Two previous attempts to introduce them had been made, but they were unable to cope with such a new environment.
The final attempt resulted in a brief period of celebration when starling nests were found right in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.
No reason to celebrate
On Feb. 4, 1959, a starling nest was found in San Diego, but I can assure you that nobody celebrated on that day. Within a century, the original population of 60 birds had swollen to more than 200 million. There were more starlings in the United States than there were people.
It was an amazing achievement, and one that both dazzled and outraged ornithologists across the country.
How was this possible? How could a species expand so rapidly?
Basically, we turned America into a habitat for starlings. They are happiest in areas that are covered with short grasses and cleared of most trees. The United States, therefore, was the perfect place for them. Humans had disrupted nearly every habitat on the continent, converting most of them into agricultural landscapes.
Designed to succeed
Most important to their success, however, was their biology. Physically, starlings have an unusual skull design that has helped them tremendously. Like many of our native blackbirds, starlings have long, thin beaks that act like tweezers. They can reach into grasses and remove small insects very easily.
Unlike our native birds, however, the musculature of the starling’s jaws works best in “reverse.” Rather than exerting their force when closing the beak, they are strongest when opening it. As a result, a starling is able to poke its beak into leaves and grasses and pry them open.
At the same time, its eyes turn forward and permit the bird to have binocular vision. This makes finding prey much easier and allows the birds to find food in the winter when most other birds are forced to migrate.
Since food is available to them for a longer portion of the year, starlings are able to support more than one set of babies every year, and their population grows.
In addition, they are ruthless competitors. They are cavity-nesters and will use naturally occurring cavities and those that can be found in and around houses and other buildings. Most importantly, they steal cavities being used by our native birds.
Starlings are so aggressive that they will even invade a nest and discard the babies to make room for their own eggs. Great-crested flycatchers, flickers and other woodpeckers, and our beloved bluebirds are all victims of these tactics.
Still, starlings are amazing creatures. They are aggressive, highly intelligent, and supremely adaptable. They live in large social groups, they have spread across the Northern Hemisphere, and when the sun hits their iridescent feathers they are remarkably beautiful. They can even learn to talk if given the chance.
Sure, their population has grown out of control, thriving at the expense of other species. Sure, they are noisy and dirty, creating conditions for disease. Just remember that all of these things are true of humans as well.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.