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Alas the Poor Starling

January 16, 2015

by Bruce Auchly

Photo Bull Elk

Introduced to North America in the 1890’s, the starling has notoriety dating back to Shakespeare.

We come to praise starlings, not bury them.

Say, what? Praise starlings? Perchance love them?

That’s right. And why not, William Shakespeare mentioned the species, if not admired the birds’ ability to mimic sounds. In fact, it’s thought the starling is in North America only because of Shakespeare. But we’ll get back to the Bard in a moment.

First, let’s look at the starling. Or close your eyes, if you must, for love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.

Birds at the local birdfeeder now in winter are natives and non-natives alike. Some, like the downy woodpecker, are well dressed even spiffy, others drab and homely, think house sparrow. At first glance the starling (proper name European starling) appears a black somber-winged visitor, an undertaker of the avian crowd.

Closer examination reveals a bird of many colors. Yes, at a distance, starlings do look black. Yet in their current winter plumage they are brown and covered in brilliant white spots, and by a midsummer’s night they will be purplish-green, iridescent offset with yellow beaks.

Still, Google “America’s most hated bird” and, sure enough, up pop starlings: They drive out native birds, invade farmers’ fields, gobble up fruit in an orchard. To their sins, it would appear, there is no end, no limit, measure, bound.

As good luck would have it, they are death on insects, such as beetles, grasshoppers and caterpillars. And there is some dispute as to whether they really are to blame for the collapse of cavity-nesting birds, like the bluebird.

Starlings are not long distance migrants, but in the winter will move locally to find food or shelter. That explains why starlings suddenly one year may decide to stay through the winter at a prairie bird feeder, eating suet, seeds or fruit, where they have not visited previously. Meanwhile, 50 miles away they seem to have disappeared.

So what is Shakespeare’s roll in all this?

In the Bard’s play, “Henry IV, Part I”, he writes about the bird’s ability to be taught the name of a prisoner and repeat it over and over to King Henry.

Starlings are excellent vocal mimics with the ability to imitate about 20 bird species as well as other sounds. It’s said Mozart kept a starling as a pet, teaching it to sing bars of his music.

In the late 1800’s, a pharmacist and fan of Shakespeare released several dozen starlings in New York City, allegedly to bring Old World birds mentioned in Shakespeare to the New World. He also apparently released at least four other European bird species, all of which died out.

Not so the starling.

Today there are an estimated 45 million starlings in the United States, according to Partners in Flight, which puts the bird as 18th most abundant bird species here. Other estimates have the total closer to 200 million and a top 10 ranking.

If anything it would appear that the starling is disliked for doing what we humans have done so successfully; adapting, being fruitful and multiplying.

So love a starling or not, it’s up to you. But they are here, are sublimely beautiful and sometimes, mind you, get a bad rap.

Then again, the course of true love never did run smooth.