Oft-maligned starling deserves a little more of our respect

  • The bird's star-like spots are thought to have inspired the starling's name.

    The bird's star-like spots are thought to have inspired the starling's name. Courtesy of Peter Schwarz

 
By Mark Spreyer
Stillman Nature Center
Posted1/19/2022 6:00 AM

I know this may upset some of you but I'm a starling fan, and I make no apologies for it.

In fact, there are some ecological luminaries, such as Rachel Carson, who have supported starlings. Let me explain.

 

My fascination with starlings began back in the '80s when I was working at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and was asked to give a lecture on introduced birds. An introduced bird is a foreign one that was either intentionally or accidentally released from captivity and has become established in the wild.

Since starlings were intentionally released in New York in 1890, they fit the bill, so to speak.

What is the case against starlings? Critics claim they take over nesting cavities and aggressively defend them against native species such as the bluebird. True, to a point. Banding studies done over a period of 16 years on a properly constructed and maintained bluebird nest box trail in Ohio indicated that starlings were NOT responsible for any of the losses of bluebird eggs or nestlings.

Native species, such as the house wren or tree swallow, were shown to be much more active competitors. I don't know about you, but I enjoy having wrens and swallows around.

One study does not an argument make. So listen to Paul Cabe, a starling authority, who turns up in the starling chapter of Janet Lembke's book "Despicable Species." Eye-catching title aside, Paul responds to one of the author's questions by saying, "... starlings won't drive any bird to extinction."

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In response to another question, he adds, "I have never been able to think of any native species which would do as well in cities."

Urban neighbors

In fall and winter, the starling's bill is dark. In spring, the beak turns bright yellow. The yellow bill separates the starling from other black birds.
In fall and winter, the starling's bill is dark. In spring, the beak turns bright yellow. The yellow bill separates the starling from other black birds. - Courtesy of Peter Schwarz

That starlings are our urban neighbors was recognized by no less ornithological legend Roger Tory Peterson, the man responsible for the modern field guide. In 1992, he weighed in on the subject of when an introduced species gains resident status. After stating that he admires house sparrows (another invited European immigrant) and starlings, he continues:

"What would our cities and towns be like without them? They manage to live with us on our terms -- and there is no denying that, as a species, we are difficult. 'But,' you may ask, "aren't house (or English) sparrows foreigners that shouldn't be here?' My answer is that most of us are of foreign origin, too. When my own parents came from Europe, sparrows were already well established on this side of the ocean. They are, thus, as American as I am."

I have gone on urban bird walks where "expert" leaders label starlings and house sparrows as "trash" birds. This is a mistake. Most of us live in an urban or suburban landscape; these are our birds.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

If you want to get an audience excited about birds -- be they denizens of old-growth forests or prairie rarities -- odds are you will start by getting them to appreciate the birds around them. There is little to be gained by telling people that the birds they live with are "undesirable."

It is nothing if not amusing to label birds such as sparrows and starlings as alien in an environment that is built by humans, a habitat that these birds have adapted to live in. Hey, why do you think they call them house sparrows?

Resourceful, versatile

Luckily, not all ornithological writers have succumbed to this zoological chauvinism. In 1988, for example, Michael Harwood contributed the following passage to Audubon magazine:

"... starlings are remarkably resourceful, versatile, and flexible. They glean grubs from our lawns and farms like robins; and they stalk barnyards, pastures, and the backs of cows like so many dark, miniature cattle egrets. Hopping and striding along with their purposeful, stiff-legged gait, they haunt our fast-food restaurants parking lots and garbage dumps like gulls, rummaging under top layers of trash ..."

Harwood's mention of robins reminds me of Rachel Carson, whose seminal 1962 book "Silent Spring" warned us about the harm done by pesticides, especially DDT. In particular, she tracked the pesticide from leaves, to worms, to the robins that ate the worms and were poisoned by the chemicals.

DDT also caused the eggs of peregrine falcons to weaken and be crushed under the weight of an incubating female.

Since I started Chicago's peregrine falcon release program, Carson's pesticide revelations had a profound effect on me. One thing I noted is that Carson did not feature a rare species when issuing her pesticide warning, she chose the common robin.

Decades before "Silent Spring" (and much to my delight), Carson had written an article proposing citizenship for the starling, which brings me back to where I started.

Species in decline

Roughly a year ago, Cornell University came out with an alarming report about a decline of 7 billion birds since 1970. Robins and starlings, among many other species, are in decline. Interestingly, starlings are also in decline on the other side of the Atlantic in the U.K.

This downturn in starling populations may please many of you. I'm not quite so sure.

That starling numbers are dwindling both where they are avian emigrants or immigrants catches my attention. I'm sure there are more than one reason why this is happening, but this is not the place for a discussion of such theories.

Remember that starlings are not some rare mountaintop or island species. They live, eat, and reproduce around the same neighborhoods and lawns where we barbecue, walk the dog, or wrestle with our kids. I think their waning populations might merit some more attention. Research in this area is happening in Europe.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy watching and listening to starlings perched on a wire in the winter sun. Such a scene reminds me of the opening lines from Shel Silverstein's poem "Foreign Language":

Once I spoke the language of the flowers,

Once I understood each word the caterpillar said,

Once I smiled in secret at the gossip of the starlings.

• Mark Spreyer is executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Email him at stillmangho@gmail.com.

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