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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

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Maximum longevity: 22.9 years (wild)
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The European starling was first introduced to the United States in New York City, in 1890. Inspired by William Shakespeare's plays, Eugene Scheffland let loose one hundred starlings in Central Park. From these birds, there was a logarithmic growth pattern and dispersal across virtually all of North America within 75 years of introduction. ("European Starling Facts," 2000).

Starlings are accomplished mimics.

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Carl Johansson, Fresno City College
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Behavior

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European starlings are highly vocal all year long except when they are molting, when they are silent. The songs of males are highly variable and have many components. They warble, click, whistle, creak, chirrup, and gurgle. European starlings are also accomplished mimics, often copying songs or sounds of other birds and animals (frog calls, goats, cats), or even of mechanical sounds. European starlings can be trained to mimic human sounds in captivity. Other calls include a "querrr?" sound used while in flight, a metallic 'chip' that warns of a predator's presence, and a snarling call made while attacking intruders.

Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Conservation Status

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The starling is one of the most abundant birds in the Sturnidae family, and is one of the most common birds in the world. (Kahane 1988; Craig and Feare 1999).

US Migratory Bird Act: no special status

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: no special status

State of Michigan List: no special status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Carl Johansson, Fresno City College
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Benefits

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For the most part, the European Starling is a nemesis to the environment and especially to farmers. The most common problem caused by starlings are damage to crops and berries. When these birds are not eating pests, they in turn become pests and destroy farmers' crops. Another negative impact is driving out competitors. Because starlings are so aggressive and gregarious, they force out many native species. An overabundance of starlings causes a lack of avian diversity. Another economic concern of starlings is their causing human disease. Established roosts of starlings harbor diseases such as blastomycosis, beef measles, and histoplasmosis. All three of these are serious heath risks to humans. One last economic concern is starlings' presence at airports and especially on runways. Stray starlings that have wandered off onto airport runways have caused aircraft disasters. These starlings clog up engines, causing a shutdown of the plane and its eventual descent. Although starlings do perform some good deeds, they are for the most part a nuisance to our community. (Weber 1980; Craig and Feare 1999; "European Starling Facts" 2000; Kahane 1988).

Negative Impacts: injures humans (carries human disease); crop pest; causes or carries domestic animal disease ; household pest

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Benefits

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The starling is beneficial to our environment because it regulates the number of pests that threaten our agriculture. Starlings work indirectly to reduce numbers of the major insects that damage farm crops. Furthermore, the European starling is also beneficial as a food source for some cultures along the Mediterranean Sea. (Weber 1980; Craig and Feare 1999; "World Book Online" 2000).

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Associations

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The abundance of European starlings makes them an important prey base for many small predators. European starlings are able to reproduce and invade new areas rapidly because they have many babies each year and because they can use a variety of foods and habitats. This also means that they can have large impacts on seed and fruit crops and insect populations. In areas where they are non-native they can displace the native species of birds that typically play these roles.

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Carl Johansson, Fresno City College
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Trophic Strategy

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The omnivorous European Starling can adapt to numerous kinds of food. It uses a "prying" and "open-bill probing" technique to allow them access foods that are protected by tough skins or shells. The birds insert their bill into the food, pry it open by widening their beaks, and expose the nourishment that is found inside. Foods eaten include seeds, insects, vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, and fruits (which will be later discussed under "Negative Economic Importance"). The most common animals eaten by the starling are centipedes, spiders, moths, earthworms. The most popular plants are berries, seeds, apples, pears, plums, and cherries. (Craig and Feare 1999; Feare 1984; "World Book Online" 2000).

Animal Foods: carrion ; insects; terrestrial non-insect arthropods; terrestrial worms

Plant Foods: seeds, grains, and nuts; fruit

Primary Diet: omnivore

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Carl Johansson, Fresno City College
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Distribution

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The European Starling Sturnus vulgaris is found in all but one of the world's six biogeographical realms, excepting (so far) the Neotropics. Dispersed mainly over its natural Palearctic region (from Central Siberia in the east and the Azores in the west to Norway in the north and the Mediterranean in the south), starlings were introduced to North America in 1890. Of the one hundred starlings released that year in New York City, only fifteen pairs survived. Over the next hundred years, starlings would increase a million-fold from the original fifteen. Because of their wide range of ecological tolerance, these birds were able to rapidly expand their range across the United States. The European Starling is found today sprawled from the Atlantic to the Pacific (east to west) and from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico (north to south). (Craig and Feare 1999; Feare 1984; Kahane 1988).

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Introduced ); palearctic (Native ); oriental (Introduced ); ethiopian (Native ); australian (Introduced )

Other Geographic Terms: cosmopolitan

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Carl Johansson, Fresno City College
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Habitat

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The European Starling is a bird of lowlands, found mainly on non-mountainous terrain. During breeding season, these birds require holes for nesting, as well as fields of vegetation for feeding. For the remainder of the year, the starling utilizes a larger range of habitats, from open moorland to salt marshes. The usual nesting sites are holes and crevices in trees, buildings, and rooftops. Starlings too plunder on other birds' nests and use them as their own. (Feare 1984; Kahane 1988; "Encarta Online" 2000).

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; chaparral

Other Habitat Features: urban ; suburban ; agricultural

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Carl Johansson, Fresno City College
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Life Expectancy

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One wild European starling lived for 15 years and 3 months. Captive birds may be expected to have maximum lifespans of slightly longer than this.

Range lifespan
Status: wild:
15.0 (high) years.

Average lifespan
Status: wild:
183 months.

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Carl Johansson, Fresno City College
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Morphology

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Adult starling males and females mature to a length of about 21.5 centimeters (8.5 inches) and weigh between 2.5 and 3.5 ounces. Both males and females have similar iridescent green glossed feathers covering the back, nape, and breast. The black wings are occasionally seen with a veneer of green and purple. In winter when the tips of the feathers have eroded away, a white or cream colored "flecking" appears against a dusky black background, primarily on the breast. This accounts for the non-breeding plumage of the adult birds. The shape of these feathers is rounded at the base and jagged toward the tip. Both sexes also share similarities in leg color (reddish brown), iris color (dark brown), and in the seasonal changes in bill color (yellow during mating season, otherwise black). Sexual dimorphism is also plentiful. Males have elongated feathers over the breast, whereas females have short and petite plumes. Males sport a bluish spot at the base of their beaks, while the female displays a reddish pink speck. In juvenile birds, the fine gloss is not as noticeable as in the adults. Juvenile birds also tend to have more rounded tips at their wings. And unlike the adult yellow bill, juveniles display a brownish-black shade year-round. (Craig and Feare 1999; "European Starling Facts" 2000; Weber 1980).

Range mass: 70.0 to 100.0 g.

Average length: 21.5 cm.

Average wingspan: 40.0 cm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike

Average basal metabolic rate: 0.877 W.

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Carl Johansson, Fresno City College
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Associations

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European starlings typically congregate in large groups called flocks, except during the breeding season. Flocking together helps protect them from predators by increasing the number of birds that can watch for predators. Birds in the flock quickly warn others about the approach of a predator.

Known Predators:

  • falcons (Falconidae)
  • domestic cats (Felis silvestris)
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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Carl Johansson, Fresno City College
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Reproduction

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Mating System: monogamous

Breeding season generally begins in the spring and ends in early summer (for the Northern Hemisphere, from late March until early July and for the Southern Hemisphere, from September to December). The length of the breeding season fluctuates from year to year. Endemic starlings in Europe commonly go through three distinct phases of breeding, each resulting in a clutch of eggs. The first clutch, containing about five eggs, is usually synchronized with egg laying of other starlings in the area. The second or "intermediate clutch" of eggs, is the result of the starlings' polygynous practice. The third clutch, which is not as synchronized as the first, typically occurs about forty to fifty days after the first. Starling eggs are predominantly glossy light blue and white. Incubation of these eggs lasts about eleven days. Females, with more developed incubation patches, incubate the eggs for the majority of time. Because of the starlings' high fertility as well as its polygyny, and its ability to utalize a broad spectrum of foods and habitats starlings are able to both multiply and invade rapidly. (Craig and Feare 1999; Kahane 1988).

Breeding interval: European starlings may lay more than one clutch in the same breeding season, particularly if the eggs or babies from the first clutch did not survive. It is more common for birds living in southern areas to have more than one clutch, probably because the breeding season is longer.

Breeding season: European starlings breed from March to July.

Range eggs per season: 4.0 to 7.0.

Range time to hatching: 15.0 (high) days.

Range fledging age: 21.0 to 23.0 days.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization ; oviparous

Average eggs per season: 5.

European starling chicks are helpless at birth. At first the parents feed them only soft, animal foods, but as they grow older the parents bring a wider variety of plant and animal foods. Both parents feed the young and remove their fecal sacs from the nest. Young leave the nest after 21 to 23 days but are fed by the parents for a few days after this. Males give little or no parental care to the last of clutches if they have had more than one clutch in the season. Once the young are living independently, they form flocks with other young birds.

Parental Investment: altricial ; male parental care ; female parental care

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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 27, 2013 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Sturnus_vulgaris.html
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James Chow, Fresno City College
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Carl Johansson, Fresno City College
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Biology

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A wide variety of food is eaten, such as insects and grains, as well as items from bird tables, rubbish dumps, the seashore and sewage farms (3). The beak is well adapted for probing the soil, and leatherjackets (cranefly larvae) are a major source of food (8). The European starling is a gregarious bird; this is particularly in evidence during winter, when individuals feed in flocks and often roost in huge numbers (3). Towards dusk, enormous flocks often form near the roost sites, with birds preening, singing and resting before flying into the roost. This is often a spectacular sight, involving a swirling aerial display of the co-ordinated movements of a huge number of European starlings (3). During the breeding season, the nest, an untidy pile of twigs, grasses, moss, wool and feathers, is made in a hole, typically in a building or a tree (6). The male begins nest construction, but the female completes it (4). After mid-April, 5-7 bluish eggs are usually laid, although up to 9 eggs have been known in a clutch (4). Both parents incubate the eggs for up to 15 days, they then feed the chicks for 20-22 days (4). After fledging, the juveniles are often seen following their parents as they feed, begging for food (2).
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Conservation

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The European starling has been up-graded to the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List, and is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act in Britain (9).
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Description

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The European starling, a familiar bird in both urban and rural areas (3), may at first glance be confused with a blackbird due to its yellow beak and blackish plumage (2). The European starling however, has many differences; it is smaller, and the feathers have an iridescent bluish-purple and greenish sheen, there are also some yellowish spots on the body (4). The sexes are similar, but in spring and summer the males lose the spots on the breast, and the lower part of the bill becomes bluish towards the base (2). In winter the bill becomes dark in both sexes. Juveniles are greyish-brown, and immature birds retain a greyish brown head but have a spotted body (2). A wide range of chuckles, whistles, knocking and grating sounds are produced, along with good imitations of the songs of other birds (4).
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Habitat

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Found in a huge range of habitats, from city centres to marshlands, and breeds in woods, cities, towns, parks, gardens, cliffs, and quarries (4).
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Range

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At the beginning of the nineteenth century, European starlings were quite rare (5). After that, they underwent an increase in numbers, and were one of Britain's most widespread and common birds, found throughout Britain, except on higher ground in Scotland (3). However, the species has more recently suffered a dramatic reversal of fortune; since the 1980s, European starling abundance has decreased severely, giving great cause for conservation concern (7). The greatest declines of a shocking 92% have occurred in woodland, but this may represent sub-optimal habitat for the European starling. On farmland declines of 66% have occurred (8). Outside of Britain, the European starling occurs throughout Europe, reaching central and southern Asia, and has been introduced to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and North America (6).
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Status

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Widespread, but currently undergoing a rapid decline (7). Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, and included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Red List (high conservation concern) (9).
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Threats

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The dramatic decline of this species, formerly one of our commonest and most familiar birds is thought to be due to the widespread loss of permanent pasture, an important feeding habitat, as a result of the intensification of agriculture (7).
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Status in Egypt

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Winter visitor.

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Sturnus vulgaris

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A medium-sized (7 ½ -8 ½ inches) songbird, the European Starling in summer is most easily identified by its glossy iridescent body, long yellow bill, and short tail. In winter, this species becomes duller overall with white-spotted plumage and a dark bill. Immature birds are dull brownish-gray, but are shaped similarly to adults. Male and female European Starlings are similar to one another in all seasons. The European Starling is native to Europe and West Asia, wintering to North Africa and the Middle East. In recent times, this species has been introduced elsewhere in the world, including in temperate North America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Some introduced populations of European Starlings migrate short distances in spring and fall, but many such populations in warmer climates are wholly non-migratory. European Starlings inhabit a wide variety of open habitats, including grasslands, meadows, and agricultural fields, across their wide range. This species has also been incredibly successful at utilizing man-made habitats, and may be found in the heart of major urban areas. European Starlings eat a variety of foods, including seeds, grains, insects, and (in some areas) human refuse. In temperate and subtropical parts of the world, the European Starling is often one of the most visible bird species, particularly in urban areas. Individuals may be observed foraging for food in fields, yards, parks, and even on bare sidewalk. This species is a cavity nester, and birds in introduced populations are frequently reviled for aggressively displacing native birds from nest sites. European Starlings are primarily active during the day.

Threat Status: Least Concern

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Brief Summary

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Common starlings are very good at imitating. Sirens, car alarms, croaking frogs; just name it, they are likely to imitate it. However, that is not the only way they try to impress. Starlings seduce each other with long throat feathers. The males also decorate their nesting holes with flowers, leaves and buds to lure females. You find starlings everywhere. They forage on particularly on pastures and fields, where they pick all kinds of creatures out of the ground. During migration season, you can see enormous groups foraging for food. Fruit trees are also a favorite...
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Sturnus vulgaris

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A medium-sized (7 ½ -8 ½ inches) songbird, the European Starling in summer is most easily identified by its glossy iridescent body, long yellow bill, and short tail. In winter, this species becomes duller overall with white-spotted plumage and a dark bill. Immature birds are dull brownish-gray, but are shaped similarly to adults. Male and female European Starlings are similar to one another in all seasons. The European Starling is native to Europe and West Asia, wintering to North Africa and the Middle East. In recent times, this species has been introduced elsewhere in the world, including in temperate North America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Some introduced populations of European Starlings migrate short distances in spring and fall, but many such populations in warmer climates are wholly non-migratory. European Starlings inhabit a wide variety of open habitats, including grasslands, meadows, and agricultural fields, across their wide range. This species has also been incredibly successful at utilizing man-made habitats, and may be found in the heart of major urban areas. European Starlings eat a variety of foods, including seeds, grains, insects, and (in some areas) human refuse. In temperate and subtropical parts of the world, the European Starling is often one of the most visible bird species, particularly in urban areas. Individuals may be observed foraging for food in fields, yards, parks, and even on bare sidewalk. This species is a cavity nester, and birds in introduced populations are frequently reviled for aggressively displacing native birds from nest sites. European Starlings are primarily active during the day.

References

  • Cabe, Paul R. 1993. European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/048
  • Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). The Internet Bird Collection. Lynx Edicions, n.d. Web. 20 July 2012.
  • Sturnus vulgaris. Xeno-canto. Xeno-canto Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 July 2012.
  • eBird Range Map - European Starling. eBird. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, N.d. Web. 20 July 2012.

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Rumelt, Reid B. Sturnus vulgaris. June-July 2012. Brief natural history summary of Sturnus vulgaris. Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.
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Robert Costello (kearins)
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Comprehensive Description

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Sturnus vulgaris Linnaeus

At Berkeley, California, on 10 May 1969, Harriet P. Thomas (1973:207) watched a starling repeatedly feeding a large fledgling brown-headed cowbird. The repetitive feeding indicated a foster-parent-parasite relationship, not a casual response to the food call of a strange fledgling. This observation is the first evidence that the starling can and does rear the parasite, and it is also the first record of the starling's being parasitized by the southwestern race of the cowbird M. ater obscurus. The two previous records of the starling as a cowbird victim were in Maryland and Illinois. The aggressive and pugnacious nature of the starling, coupled with its habit of nesting in holes, apparently keeps it largely free of cowbird molestation.

BLACK-CAPPED VIREO
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Friedmann, Herbert, Kiff, Lloyd F., and Rothstein, Stephen I. 1977. "A further contribution of knowledge of the host relations of the parasitic cowbirds." Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology. 1-75. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.00810282.235

Common starling

provided by wikipedia EN

The common starling or European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), also known simply as the starling in Great Britain and Ireland, is a medium-sized passerine bird in the starling family, Sturnidae. It is about 20 cm (8 in) long and has glossy black plumage with a metallic sheen, which is speckled with white at some times of year. The legs are pink and the bill is black in winter and yellow in summer; young birds have browner plumage than the adults. It is a noisy bird, especially in communal roosts and other gregarious situations, with an unmusical but varied song. Its gift for mimicry has been noted in literature including the Mabinogion and the works of Pliny the Elder and William Shakespeare.

The common starling has about 12 subspecies breeding in open habitats across its native range in temperate Europe and across the Palearctic to western Mongolia, and it has been introduced to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa and Fiji.[2] This bird is resident in western and southern Europe and southwestern Asia, while northeastern populations migrate south and west in the winter within the breeding range and also further south to Iberia and North Africa. The common starling builds an untidy nest in a natural or artificial cavity in which four or five glossy, pale blue eggs are laid. These take two weeks to hatch and the young remain in the nest for another three weeks. There are normally one or two breeding attempts each year. This species is omnivorous, taking a wide range of invertebrates, as well as seeds and fruit. It is hunted by various mammals and birds of prey, and is host to a range of external and internal parasites.

Large flocks typical of this species can be beneficial to agriculture by controlling invertebrate pests; however, starlings can also be pests themselves when they feed on fruit and sprouting crops. Common starlings may also be a nuisance through the noise and mess caused by their large urban roosts. Introduced populations in particular have been subjected to a range of controls, including culling, but these have had limited success, except in preventing the colonisation of Western Australia.

The species has declined in numbers in parts of northern and western Europe since the 1980s due to fewer grassland invertebrates being available as food for growing chicks. Despite this, its huge global population is not thought to be declining significantly, so the common starling is classified as being of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Taxonomy and systematics

The common starling was first described by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1758 under its current binomial name.[3] Sturnus and vulgaris are derived from the Latin for "starling" and "common" respectively.[4] The Old English staer, later stare, and the Latin sturnus are both derived from an unknown Indo-European root dating back to the second millennium BC. "Starling" was first recorded in the 11th century, when it referred to the juvenile of the species, but by the 16th century it had already largely supplanted "stare" to refer to birds of all ages.[5] The older name is referenced in William Butler Yeats' poem "The Stare's Nest by My Window".[6] The International Ornithological Congress's preferred English vernacular name is common starling.[7]

The starling family, Sturnidae, is an entirely Old World group apart from introductions elsewhere, with the greatest numbers of species in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.[8] The genus Sturnus is polyphyletic and relationships between its members are not fully resolved. The closest relation of the common starling is the spotless starling.[9] The non-migratory spotless starling may be descended from a population of ancestral S. vulgaris that survived in an Iberian refugium during an Ice Age retreat,[10] and mitochondrial gene studies suggest that it could be considered a subspecies of the common starling. There is more genetic variation between common starling populations than between the nominate common starling and the spotless starling.[11] Although common starling remains are known from the Middle Pleistocene,[12] part of the problem in resolving relationships in the Sturnidae is the paucity of the fossil record for the family as a whole.[10]

Subspecies

There are several subspecies of the common starling, which vary clinally in size and the colour tone of the adult plumage. The gradual variation over geographic range and extensive intergradation means that acceptance of the various subspecies varies between authorities.[13][14]

Birds from Fair Isle, St. Kilda and the Outer Hebrides are intermediate in size between S. v. zetlandicus and the nominate form, and their subspecies placement varies according to the authority. The dark juveniles typical of these island forms are occasionally found in mainland Scotland and elsewhere, indicating some gene flow from faroensis or zetlandicus, subspecies formerly considered to be isolated.[18][19]

Several other subspecies have been named, but are generally no longer considered valid. Most are intergrades that occur where the ranges of various subspecies meet. These include: S. v. ruthenus Menzbier, 1891 and S. v. jitkowi Buturlin, 1904, which are intergrades between vulgaris and poltaratskyi from western Russia; S. v. graecus Tschusi, 1905 and S. v. balcanicus Buturlin and Harms, 1909, which are intergrades between vulgaris and tauricus from the southern Balkans to central Ukraine and throughout Greece to the Bosporus; and S. v. heinrichi Stresemann, 1928, an intergrade between caucasicus and nobilior in northern Iran. S. v. persepolis Ticehurst, 1928 from southern Iran's (Fars Province) is very similar to vulgaris, and it is not clear whether it is a distinct resident population or simply migrants from southeastern Europe.[14]

Description

Juvenile
A young juvenile perching on a table in London. Its plumage is mainly grey-brown

The common starling is 19–23 cm (7.5–9.1 in) long, with a wingspan of 31–44 cm (12–17 in) and a weight of 58–101 g (2.0–3.6 oz).[15] Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 11.8 to 13.8 cm (4.6 to 5.4 in), the tail is 5.8 to 6.8 cm (2.3 to 2.7 in), the culmen is 2.5 to 3.2 cm (0.98 to 1.26 in) and the tarsus is 2.7 to 3.2 cm (1.1 to 1.3 in).[15] The plumage is iridescent black, glossed purple or green, and spangled with white, especially in winter. The underparts of adult male common starlings are less spotted than those of adult females at a given time of year. The throat feathers of males are long and loose and are used in display while those of females are smaller and more pointed. The legs are stout and pinkish- or greyish-red. The bill is narrow and conical with a sharp tip; in the winter it is brownish-black but in summer, females have lemon yellow beaks with pink bases while males have yellow bills with blue-grey bases. Moulting occurs once a year- in late summer after the breeding season has finished; the fresh feathers are prominently tipped white (breast feathers) or buff (wing and back feathers), which gives the bird a speckled appearance. The reduction in the spotting in the breeding season is achieved through the white feather tips largely wearing off. Juveniles are grey-brown and by their first winter resemble adults though often retaining some brown juvenile feathering, especially on the head.[13][20] They can usually be sexed by the colour of the irises, rich brown in males, mouse-brown or grey in females. Estimating the contrast between an iris and the central always-dark pupil is 97% accurate in determining sex, rising to 98% if the length of the throat feathers is also considered.[21][22] The common starling is mid-sized by both starling standards and passerine standards. It is readily distinguished from other mid-sized passerines, such as thrushes, icterids or small corvids, by its relatively short tail, sharp, blade-like bill, round-bellied shape and strong, sizeable (and rufous-coloured) legs. In flight, its strongly pointed wings and dark colouration are distinctive, while on the ground its strange, somewhat waddling gait is also characteristic. The colouring and build usually distinguish this bird from other starlings, although the closely related spotless starling may be physically distinguished by the lack of iridescent spots in adult breeding plumage.[23]

Juvenile moulting
An immature in California. It has partly moulted into its first-winter plumage; however, juvenile brown plumage is prominent on its head and neck

Like most terrestrial starlings the common starling moves by walking or running, rather than hopping. Their flight is quite strong and direct; their triangular wings beat very rapidly, and periodically the birds glide for a short way without losing much height before resuming powered flight. When in a flock, the birds take off almost simultaneously, wheel and turn in unison, form a compact mass or trail off into a wispy stream, bunch up again and land in a coordinated fashion.[20] Common starling on migration can fly at 60–80 km/h (37–50 mph) and cover up to 1,000–1,500 km (620–930 mi).[24]

Several terrestrial starlings, including those in the genus Sturnus, have adaptations of the skull and muscles that help with feeding by probing.[25] This adaptation is most strongly developed in the common starling (along with the spotless and white-cheeked starlings), where the protractor muscles responsible for opening the jaw are enlarged and the skull is narrow, allowing the eye to be moved forward to peer down the length of the bill.[26] This technique involves inserting the bill into the ground and opening it as a way of searching for hidden food items. Common starlings have the physical traits that enable them to use this feeding technique, which has undoubtedly helped the species spread far and wide.[15]

In Iberia, the western Mediterranean and northwest Africa, the common starling may be confused with the closely related spotless starling, the plumage of which, as its name implies, has a more uniform colour. At close range it can be seen that the latter has longer throat feathers, a fact particularly noticeable when it sings.[27]

Vocalization

Chattering calls of a group
Singing adult male
Adult male singing and displaying its long throat feathers
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Singing Sturnus vulgaris, Spring Creek Park, New York, USA.

The common starling is a noisy bird. Its song consists of a wide variety of both melodic and mechanical-sounding noises as part of a ritual succession of sounds. The male is the main songster and engages in bouts of song lasting for a minute or more. Each of these typically includes four varieties of song type, which follow each other in a regular order without pause. The bout starts with a series of pure-tone whistles and these are followed by the main part of the song, a number of variable sequences that often incorporate snatches of song mimicked from other species of bird and various naturally occurring or man-made noises. The structure and simplicity of the sound mimicked is of greater importance than the frequency with which it occurs. In some instances, a wild starling has been observed to mimic a sound it has heard only once. Each sound clip is repeated several times before the bird moves on to the next. After this variable section comes a number of types of repeated clicks followed by a final burst of high-frequency song, again formed of several types. Each bird has its own repertoire with more proficient birds having a range of up to 35 variable song types and as many as 14 types of clicks.[28]

Males sing constantly as the breeding period approaches and perform less often once pairs have bonded. In the presence of a female, a male sometimes flies to his nest and sings from the entrance, apparently attempting to entice the female in. Older birds tend to have a wider repertoire than younger ones. Those males that engage in longer bouts of singing and that have wider repertoires attract mates earlier and have greater reproductive success than others. Females appear to prefer mates with more complex songs, perhaps because this indicates greater experience or longevity. Having a complex song is also useful in defending a territory and deterring less experienced males from encroaching.[28]

Along with having adaptions of the skull and muscles for singing, male starlings also have a much larger syrinx than females. This is due to increased muscle mass and enlarged elements of the syringeal skeleton. The male starling's syrinx is around 35% larger than its female counterpart.[29] However, this sexual dimorphism is less pronounced than it is in songbird species like the zebra finch, where the male's syrinx is 100% larger than the female's syrinx.[30]

Singing also occurs outside the breeding season, taking place throughout the year apart from the moulting period. The songsters are more commonly male although females also sing on occasion. The function of such out-of-season song is poorly understood.[28] Eleven other types of call have been described including a flock call, threat call, attack call, snarl call and copulation call.[31] The alarm call is a harsh scream, and while foraging together common starlings squabble incessantly.[20] They chatter while roosting and bathing, making a great deal of noise that can cause irritation to people living nearby. When a flock of common starlings is flying together, the synchronised movements of the birds' wings make a distinctive whooshing sound that can be heard hundreds of metres away.[31]

Behaviour and ecology

A large flock in Rotterdam, Netherlands

The common starling is a highly gregarious species, especially in autumn and winter. Although flock size is highly variable, huge, noisy flocks - murmurations - may form near roosts. These dense concentrations of birds are thought to be a defence against attacks by birds of prey such as peregrine falcons or Eurasian sparrowhawks.[32][33] Flocks form a tight sphere-like formation in flight, frequently expanding and contracting and changing shape, seemingly without any sort of leader. Each common starling changes its course and speed as a result of the movement of its closest neighbours.[34]

Very large roosts, up to 1.5 million birds, form in city centres, woodlands and reedbeds, causing problems with their droppings. These may accumulate up to 30 cm (12 in) deep, killing trees by their concentration of chemicals. In smaller amounts, the droppings act as a fertiliser, and therefore woodland managers may try to move roosts from one area of a wood to another to benefit from the soil enhancement and avoid large toxic deposits.[35]

Flocks of more than a million common starlings may be observed just before sunset in spring in southwestern Jutland, Denmark, over the seaward marshlands of Tønder and Esbjerg municipalities between Tønder and Ribe. They gather in March until northern Scandinavian birds leave for their breeding ranges by mid-April. Their swarm behaviour creates complex shapes silhouetted against the sky, a phenomenon known locally as sort sol ("black sun").[36] Flocks of anything from five to fifty thousand common starlings form in areas of the UK just before sundown during mid-winter. These flocks are commonly called murmurations.[37]

Feeding

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A flock foraging at a farm in Northern Ireland

The common starling is largely insectivorous and feeds on both pest and other arthropods. The food range includes spiders, crane flies, moths, mayflies, dragonflies, damsel flies, grasshoppers, earwigs, lacewings, caddisflies, flies, beetles, sawflies, bees, wasps and ants. Prey are consumed in both adult and larvae stages of development, and common starlings will also feed on earthworms, snails, small amphibians and lizards.[38] While the consumption of invertebrates is necessary for successful breeding, common starlings are omnivorous and can also eat grains, seeds, fruits, nectar and food waste if the opportunity arises.[39][40][41] The Sturnidae differ from most birds in that they cannot easily metabolise foods containing high levels of sucrose, although they can cope with other fruits such as grapes and cherries.[42] The isolated Azores subspecies of the common starling eats the eggs of the endangered roseate tern. Measures are being introduced to reduce common starling populations by culling before the terns return to their breeding colonies in spring.[11]

An adult foraging and finding food for young chicks

There are several methods by which common starlings obtain their food, but, for the most part, they forage close to the ground, taking insects from the surface or just underneath. Generally, common starlings prefer foraging amongst short-cropped grasses and eat with grazing animals or perch on their backs,[41] where they will also feed on the mammal's external parasites.[15] Large flocks may engage in a practice known as "roller-feeding", where the birds at the back of the flock continually fly to the front where the feeding opportunities are best.[39] The larger the flock, the nearer individuals are to one another while foraging. Flocks often feed in one place for some time, and return to previous successfully foraged sites.[39]

There are three types of foraging behaviours observed in the common starling. "Probing" involves the bird plunging its beak into the ground randomly and repetitively until an insect has been found, and is often accompanied by bill gaping where the bird opens its beak in the soil to enlarge a hole. This behaviour, first described by Konrad Lorenz and given the German term zirkeln,[43] is also used to create and widen holes in plastic garbage bags. It takes time for young common starlings to perfect this technique, and because of this the diet of young birds will often contain fewer insects.[27] "Hawking" is the capture of flying insects directly from the air, and "lunging" is the less common technique of striking forward to catch a moving invertebrate on the ground. Earthworms are caught by pulling from soil.[39] Common starlings that have periods without access to food, or have a reduction in the hours of light available for feeding, compensate by increasing their body mass by the deposition of fat.[44]

Nesting

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A parent feeding a chick in a nest in a tree hole in England

Unpaired males find a suitable cavity and begin to build nests in order to attract single females, often decorating the nest with ornaments such as flowers and fresh green material, which the female later disassembles upon accepting him as a mate.[31][45] The amount of green material is not important, as long as some is present, but the presence of herbs in the decorative material appears to be significant in attracting a mate. The scent of plants such as yarrow acts as an olfactory attractant to females.[45][46]

The males sing throughout much of the construction and even more so when a female approaches his nest. Following copulation, the male and female continue to build the nest. Nests may be in any type of hole, common locations include inside hollowed trees, buildings, tree stumps and man-made nest-boxes.[31] S. v. zetlandicus typically breeds in crevices and holes in cliffs, a habitat only rarely used by the nominate form.[47] Nests are typically made out of straw, dry grass and twigs with an inner lining made up of feathers, wool and soft leaves. Construction usually takes four or five days and may continue through incubation.[31]

Common starlings are both monogamous and polygamous; although broods are generally brought up by one male and one female, occasionally the pair may have an extra helper. Pairs may be part of a colony, in which case several other nests may occupy the same or nearby trees.[31] Males may mate with a second female while the first is still on the nest. The reproductive success of the bird is poorer in the second nest than it is in the primary nest and is better when the male remains monogamous.[48]

Breeding

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Five eggs in a nest
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Eggs, Collection Museum Wiesbaden, Germany
Chicks waiting to be fed
Chicks waiting to be fed at the entrance of their nest made in a gap in a wall in Galway, Ireland

Breeding takes place during the spring and summer. Following copulation, the female lays eggs on a daily basis over a period of several days. If an egg is lost during this time, she will lay another to replace it. There are normally four or five eggs that are ovoid in shape and pale blue or occasionally white, and they commonly have a glossy appearance.[31] The colour of the eggs seems to have evolved through the relatively good visibility of blue at low light levels.[49] The egg size is 26.5–34.5 mm (1.04–1.36 in) in length and 20.0–22.5 mm (0.79–0.89 in) in maximum diameter.[15]

Incubation lasts thirteen days, although the last egg laid may take 24 hours longer than the first to hatch. Both parents share the responsibility of brooding the eggs, but the female spends more time incubating them than does the male, and is the only parent to do so at night when the male returns to the communal roost. The young are born blind and naked. They develop light fluffy down within seven days of hatching and can see within nine days.[31] Once the chicks are able to regulate their body temperature, about six days after hatching,[50] the adults largely cease removing droppings from the nest. Prior to that, the fouling would wet both the chicks' plumage and the nest material, thereby reducing their effectiveness as insulation and increasing the risk of chilling the hatchlings.[51] Nestlings remain in the nest for three weeks, where they are fed continuously by both parents. Fledglings continue to be fed by their parents for another one or two weeks. A pair can raise up to three broods per year, frequently reusing and relining the same nest,[31] although two broods is typical,[15] or just one north of 48°N.[24] Within two months, most juveniles will have moulted and gained their first basic plumage. They acquire their adult plumage the following year.[31] As with other passerines, the nest is kept clean and the chicks' faecal sacs are removed by the adults.[52]

Intraspecific brood parasites are common in common starling nests. Female "floaters" (unpaired females during the breeding season) present in colonies often lay eggs in another pair's nest.[53] Fledglings have also been reported to invade their own or neighbouring nests and evict a new brood.[31] Common starling nests have a 48% to 79% rate of successful fledging, although only 20% of nestlings survive to breeding age; the adult survival rate is closer to 60%. The average life span is about 2–3 years,[24] with a longevity record of 22 years 11 months.[54]

Predators and parasites

A majority of starling predators are avian. The typical response of starling groups is to take flight, with a common sight being undulating flocks of starling flying high in quick and agile patterns. Their abilities in flight are seldom matched by birds of prey.[55][56] Adult common starlings are hunted by hawks such as the northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) and Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus),[57] and falcons including the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo) and common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus).[58][59] Slower raptors like black and red kites (Milvus migrans & milvus), eastern imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca), common buzzard (Buteo buteo) and Australasian harrier (Circus approximans) tend to take the more easily caught fledglings or juveniles.[60][61][62] While perched in groups by night, they can be vulnerable to owls, including the little owl (Athene noctua), long-eared owl (Asio otus), short-eared owl (Asio flammeus), barn owl (Tyto alba), tawny owl (Strix aluco) and Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo).[63][64]

More than twenty species of hawk, owl and falcon are known to occasionally predate feral starlings in North America, though the most regular predators of adults are likely to be urban-living peregrine falcons or merlins (Falco columbarius).[65][66] Common mynas (Acridotheres tristis) sometimes evict eggs, nestlings and adult common starlings from their nests,[31] and the lesser honeyguide (Indicator minor), a brood parasite, uses the common starling as a host.[67] Starlings are more commonly the culprits rather than victims of nest eviction however, especially towards other starlings and woodpeckers.[68][69] Nests can be raided by mammals capable of climbing to them, such as small mustelids (Mustela spp.), raccoons (Procyon lotor)[70][71] and squirrels (Sciurus spp.),[24] and cats may catch the unwary.[72]

Common starlings are hosts to a wide range of parasites. A survey of three hundred common starlings from six US states found that all had at least one type of parasite; 99% had external fleas, mites or ticks, and 95% carried internal parasites, mostly various types of worm. Blood-sucking species leave their host when it dies, but other external parasites stay on the corpse. A bird with a deformed bill was heavily infested with Mallophaga lice, presumably due to its inability to remove vermin.[73]

Parasitic mite
Dermanyssus gallinae, a parasite of the common starling

The hen flea (Ceratophyllus gallinae) is the most common flea in their nests.[74] The small, pale house-sparrow flea C. fringillae, is also occasionally found there and probably arises from the habit of its main host of taking over the nests of other species. This flea does not occur in the US, even on house sparrows.[75] Lice include Menacanthus eurystemus, Brueelia nebulosa and Stumidoecus sturni. Other arthropod parasites include Ixodes ticks and mites such as Analgopsis passerinus, Boydaia stumi, Dermanyssus gallinae, Ornithonyssus bursa, O. sylviarum, Proctophyllodes species, Pteronyssoides truncatus and Trouessartia rosteri.[76] The hen mite D. gallinae is itself preyed upon by the predatory mite Androlaelaps casalis. The presence of this control on numbers of the parasitic species may explain why birds are prepared to reuse old nests.[77]

Flying insects that parasitise common starlings include the louse-fly Omithomya nigricornis[76] and the saprophagous fly Camus hemapterus. The latter species breaks off the feathers of its host and lives on the fats produced by growing plumage.[78] Larvae of the moth Hofmannophila pseudospretella are nest scavengers, which feed on animal material such as faeces or dead nestlings.[79] Protozoan blood parasites of the genus Haemoproteus have been found in common starlings,[80] but a better known pest is the brilliant scarlet nematode Syngamus trachea. This worm moves from the lungs to the trachea and may cause its host to suffocate. In Britain, the rook and the common starling are the most infested wild birds.[81] Other recorded internal parasites include the spiny-headed worm Prosthorhynchus transverses.[82]

Common starlings may contract avian tuberculosis,[83][84] avian malaria[85][86] and retrovirus-induced lymphomas.[87] Captive starlings often accumulate excess iron in the liver, a condition that can be prevented by adding black tea-leaves to the food.[88][89]

Distribution and habitat

The global population of common starlings was estimated to be 310 million individuals in 2004, occupying a total area of 8,870,000 km2 (3,420,000 sq mi).[90] Widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the bird is native to Eurasia and is found throughout Europe, northern Africa (from Morocco to Egypt), India (mainly in the north but regularly extending farther south[91] and extending into the Maldives[92]) Nepal, the Middle East including Israel, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, and northwestern China.[90]

Resting on migration
A flock resting on a pine tree during migration

Common starlings in the south and west of Europe and south of latitude 40°N are mainly resident,[24] although other populations migrate from regions where the winter is harsh, the ground frozen and food scarce. Large numbers of birds from northern Europe, Russia and Ukraine migrate south westwards or south eastwards.[20][28] In the autumn, when immigrants are arriving from eastern Europe, many of Britain's common starlings are setting off for Iberia and North Africa. Other groups of birds are in passage across the country and the pathways of these different streams of bird may cross.[20] Of the 15,000 birds ringed as nestlings in Merseyside, England, individuals have been recovered at various times of year as far afield as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany and the Low Countries.[93] Small numbers of common starlings have sporadically been observed in Japan and Hong Kong but it is unclear from whence these birds originated.[28] In North America, northern populations have developed a migration pattern, vacating much of Canada in winter.[94] Birds in the east of the country move southwards, and those from farther west winter in the southwest of the US.[15]

Common starlings prefer urban or suburban areas where artificial structures and trees provide adequate nesting and roosting sites. Reedbeds are also favoured for roosting and the birds commonly feed in grassy areas such as farmland, grazing pastures, playing fields, golf courses and airfields where short grass makes foraging easy.[39] They occasionally inhabit open forests and woodlands and are sometimes found in shrubby areas such as Australian heathland. Common starlings rarely inhabit dense, wet forests (i.e. rainforests or wet sclerophyll forests) but are found in coastal areas, where they nest and roost on cliffs and forage amongst seaweed. Their ability to adapt to a large variety of habitats has allowed them to disperse and establish themselves in diverse locations around the world resulting in a habitat range from coastal wetlands to alpine forests, from sea cliffs to mountain ranges 1,900 m (6,200 ft) above sea level.[39]

Introduced populations

The common starling has been introduced to and has successfully established itself in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, North America, Fiji and several Caribbean islands. As a result, it has also been able to migrate to Thailand, Southeast Asia and New Guinea.[39]

South America

Five individuals conveyed on a ship from England alighted near Lago de Maracaibo in Venezuela in November 1949, but subsequently vanished.[95] In 1987, a small population of common starlings was observed nesting in gardens in the city of Buenos Aires.[41][96] Since then, despite some initial attempts at eradication, the bird has been expanding its breeding range at an average rate of 7.5 km (4.7 mi) per year, keeping within 30 km (19 mi) of the Atlantic coast. In Argentina, the species makes use of a variety of natural and man-made nesting sites, particularly woodpecker holes.[96]

Australia

The common starling was introduced to Australia to consume insect pests of farm crops. Early settlers looked forward to their arrival, believing that common starlings were also important for the pollination of flax, a major agricultural product. Nest-boxes for the newly released birds were placed on farms and near crops. The common starling was introduced to Melbourne in 1857 and Sydney two decades later.[39] By the 1880s, established populations were present in the southeast of the country thanks to the work of acclimatisation committees.[97] By the 1920s, common starlings were widespread throughout Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales, but by then they were considered to be pests.[39] Although common starlings were first sighted in Albany, Western Australia in 1917, they have been largely prevented from spreading to the state. The wide and arid Nullarbor Plain provides a natural barrier and control measures have been adopted that have killed 55,000 birds over three decades.[98] The common starling has also colonised Kangaroo Island, Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island and Tasmania.[95]

New Zealand

The early settlers in New Zealand cleared the bush and found their newly planted crops were invaded by hordes of caterpillars and other insects deprived of their previous food sources. Native birds were not habituated to living in close proximity to man so the common starling was introduced from Europe along with the house sparrow to control the pests. It was first brought over in 1862 by the Nelson Acclimatisation Society and other introductions followed. The birds soon became established and are now found all over the country including the subtropical Kermadec Islands to the north and the equally distant Macquarie Island far to the south.[99][100]

North America

Flock of starlings
Flock in the Napa Valley, California
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At Half Moon Bay, California
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A European Starling in flight, suburban St. Louis, Missouri.

Various Acclimatisation society records mention instances of starlings being introduced in Cincinnati, Quebec and New York in the 1870s.[101] As part of a nationwide effort, about 60 common starlings were released in 1890 into New York's Central Park by Eugene Schieffelin, president of the American Acclimatization Society. It has been widely reported that he had tried to introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare into North America,[102][103] but this claim has been traced to an essay in 1948 by naturalist Edwin Way Teale, whose notes appear to indicate that it was speculation.[101][104] About the same date, the Portland Song Bird Club released 35 pairs of common starlings in Portland, Oregon.[105] Earlier introductions are recorded to have died out within a few years, with the 1890 New York and Portland introductions reported as being the most successful.[106] Population of the birds is estimated to have grown to 150 million, occupying an area extending from southern Canada and Alaska to Central America.[38][105]

Polynesia

The common starling appears to have arrived in Fiji in 1925 on Ono-i-lau and Vatoa islands. It may have colonised from New Zealand via Raoul in the Kermadec Islands where it is abundant, that group being roughly equidistant between New Zealand and Fiji. Its spread in Fiji has been limited, and there are doubts about the population's viability. Tonga was colonised at about the same date and the birds there have been slowly spreading north through the group.[107][108]

South Africa

In South Africa, the common starling was introduced in 1897 by Cecil Rhodes. It spread slowly, and by 1954, had reached Clanwilliam and Port Elizabeth. It is now common in the southern Cape region, thinning out northwards to the Johannesburg area. It is present in the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape and the Free State provinces of South Africa and lowland Lesotho, with occasional sightings in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and around the town of Oranjemund in Namibia. In Southern Africa populations appear to be resident and the bird is strongly associated with man and anthropogenic habitats. It favours irrigated land and is absent from regions where the ground is baked so dry that it cannot probe for insects. It may compete with native birds for crevice nesting sites but the indigenous species are probably more disadvantaged by destruction of their natural habitat than they are by inter-specific competition. It breeds from September to December and outside the breeding season may congregate in large flocks, often roosting in reedbeds. It is the most common bird species in urban and agricultural areas.[109]

West Indies

In 1901, the inhabitants of Saint Kitts petitioned the Colonial Secretary for a ″government grant of starlings to exterminate″ an outbreak of grasshoppers which was causing enormous damage to their crops.[110] The common starling was introduced to Jamaica in 1903, and the Bahamas and Cuba were colonised naturally from the US.[24][111] This bird is fairly common but local in Jamaica, Grand Bahama and Bimini, and is rare in the rest of the Bahamas and eastern Cuba.[112][113]

Status

The global population of the common starling is estimated to be more than 310 million individuals and its numbers are not thought to be declining significantly, so the bird is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as being of least concern.[1] It had shown a marked increase in numbers throughout Europe from the 19th century to around the 1950s and 60s. In about 1830, S. v. vulgaris expanded its range in the British Isles, spreading into Ireland and areas of Scotland where it had formerly been absent, although S. v. zetlandicus was already present in Shetland and the Outer Hebrides. The common starling has bred in northern Sweden from 1850 and in Iceland from 1935. The breeding range spread through southern France to northeastern Spain, and there were other range expansions particularly in Italy, Austria and Finland.[13] It started breeding in Iberia in 1960, while the spotless starling's range had been expanding northward since the 1950s. The low rate of advance, about 4.7 km (2.9 mi) per year for both species, is due to the suboptimal mountain and woodland terrain. Expansion has since slowed even further due to direct competition between the two similar species where they overlap in southwestern France and northwestern Spain.[15][114]

Major declines in populations have been observed from 1980 onward in Sweden, Finland, northern Russia (Karelia) and the Baltic States, and smaller declines in much of the rest of northern and central Europe.[13] The bird has been adversely affected in these areas by intensive agriculture, and in several countries it has been red-listed due to population declines of more than 50%. Numbers dwindled in the United Kingdom by more than 80% between 1966 and 2004; although populations in some areas such as Northern Ireland were stable or even increased, those in other areas, mainly England, declined even more sharply. The overall decline seems to be due to the low survival rate of young birds, which may be caused by changes in agricultural practices.[115] The intensive farming methods used in northern Europe mean there is less pasture and meadow habitat available, and the supply of grassland invertebrates needed for the nestlings to thrive is correspondingly reduced.[116]

Relationship with humans

Benefits and problems

Starlings on wires
Congregating on wires in France
Starling eating fruit
Feeding on a windfall apple

Since common starlings eat insect pests such as wireworms, they are considered beneficial in northern Eurasia, and this was one of the reasons given for introducing the birds elsewhere. Around 25 million nest boxes were erected for this species in the former Soviet Union, and common starlings were found to be effective in controlling the grass grub Costelytra zealandica in New Zealand.[15] The original Australian introduction was facilitated by the provision of nest boxes to help this mainly insectivorous bird to breed successfully,[39] and even in the US, where this is a pest species, the Department of Agriculture acknowledges that vast numbers of insects are consumed by common starlings.[117]

Common starlings introduced to areas such as Australia or North America, where other members of the genus are absent, may affect native species through competition for nest holes. In North America, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, purple martins and other swallows may be affected.[105][118] In Australia, competitors for nesting sites include the crimson and eastern rosellas.[119] For its role in the decline of local native species and the damages to agriculture, the common starling has been included in the IUCN List of the world's 100 worst invasive species.[120]

European, or common, starlings are habitat generalists meaning they are able to exploit a multitude of habitats, nest sites and food sources. This, coupled with them being lowland birds that easily coexist with humans, enables them to take advantage of other native birds, most particularly woodpecker.[121] European starlings are considered aggressive omnivores that utilize an open-bill probing technique that gives them an evolutionary advantage over birds that are frugivores.[122] Their aggressive and gregarious behaviour in terms of food thus allows them to outcompete native species. Common starlings are also aggressive in the creation of their nest cavities. Often, starlings will usurp a nest site, for example a tree hollow, and fill it rapidly with bedding and contaminants compared to other species, like the native parrots, that use little to no bedding.[122] As cavity nesters, they are able to outcompete many native species in terms of habitat and nest sites.

Common starlings can eat and damage fruit in orchards such as grapes, peaches, olives, currants and tomatoes or dig up newly sown grain and sprouting crops.[41][123] They may also eat animal feed and distribute seeds through their droppings. In eastern Australia, weeds like bridal creeper, blackberry and boneseed are thought to have been spread by common starlings.[124] Agricultural damage in the US is estimated as costing about US$800 million annually.[117] This bird is not considered to be as damaging to agriculture in South Africa as it is in the United States.[67]

Common starlings take advantage of agricultural fields, livestock facilities, and other human related sources of food and nest sites. Starlings often assault crops such as grapes, olives, and cherries by consuming excessive amounts of crops in large flock sizes and in new grain fields, starlings pull up young plants and eat the seeds.[121] In caged trials, it was shown that starlings eat 7-23 g of animal food daily and 20-40 g of plant food meaning a decent portion of crops are consumed by these birds.[125] Bird damage to grapes in 1968 cost upwards to $4.4 million while losing almost 17% of the crops.[125] As well, these birds often congregate at feeding troughs to eat grain and concurrently contaminate the food and water source with their droppings that were provided for livestock.[121] For example, high protein supplements added to cattle feed are selectively eaten by common starlings.[126] In 1968, the cost of cattle rations consumed during winter by starlings was $84 per 1,000 starlings and is proposed to be much more expensive today given an increase in current cattle feed costs.[125] The English or house sparrow (Passer domesticus) and the common starling are considerable agricultural pests, together causing an estimated US$1 billion per year in crop damages.[127]

The large size of flocks can also cause problems. Common starlings may be sucked into aircraft jet engines, one of the worst instances of this being an incident in Boston in 1960, when sixty-two people died after a turboprop airliner flew into a flock and plummeted into the sea at Winthrop Harbor.[128] The large roosts of the common starling pose many safety hazards for aircraft, mainly including the clogging of engines that concurrently shutdown the plane into descent.[129] From the years 1990–2001, 852 incidents of aircraft hazard due to starlings and blackbirds were reported with 39 strikes causing major damage that cost a total of $1,607,317.[125]

Starlings' droppings can contain the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, the cause of histoplasmosis in humans. At roosting sites this fungus can thrive in accumulated droppings.[15] There are a number of other infectious diseases that can potentially be transmitted by common starlings to humans,[117] although the potential for the birds to spread infections may have been exaggerated.[105] The spread of disease to livestock is also a concern, possibly more important than starling's effects on food consumption or transmission of disease to humans. The spreading of Histoplasmosis reported in a Nebraska manufacturing facility saw a loss of 10,000 pigs from the spread of the disease which is valued at $1 million US dollars loss in today's market.[125]

Control

Due to the impact of starlings on crop production, there have been attempts to control the numbers of both native and introduced populations of common starlings. Within the natural breeding range, this may be affected by legislation. For example, in Spain, the species is hunted commercially as a food item, and has a closed season, whereas in France, it is classed as a pest, and the season in which it may be killed covers the greater part of the year. In Great Britain, starlings are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it "illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take a starling, or to take, damage or destroy an active nest or its contents". The Wildlife Order in Northern Ireland allows, with a general licence, "an authorised person to control starlings to prevent serious damage to agriculture or preserve public health and safety".[130] This species is migratory, so birds involved in control measures may have come from a wide area and breeding populations may not be greatly affected. In Europe, the varying legislation and mobile populations mean that control attempts may have limited long-term results.[123] Non-lethal techniques such as scaring with visual or auditory devices have only a temporary effect in any case.[24]

Huge urban roosts in cities can create problems due to the noise and mess made and the smell of the droppings. In 1949, so many birds landed on the clock hands of London's Big Ben that it stopped, leading to unsuccessful attempts to disrupt the roosts with netting, repellent chemical on the ledges and broadcasts of common starling alarm calls. An entire episode of The Goon Show in 1954 was a parody of the futile efforts to disrupt the large common starling roosts in central London.[131]

Starling at bird feeder
Visiting a bird feeder. The adult has a black beak in the winter.

Where it is introduced, the common starling is unprotected by legislation, and extensive control plans may be initiated. Common starlings can be prevented from using nest boxes by ensuring that the access holes are smaller than the 1.5 in (38 mm) diameter they need, and the removal of perches discourages them from visiting bird feeders.[105]

Western Australia banned the import of common starlings in 1895. New flocks arriving from the east are routinely shot, while the less cautious juveniles are trapped and netted.[97] New methods are being developed, such as tagging one bird and tracking it back to establish where other members of the flock roost.[132] Another technique is to analyse the DNA of Australian common starling populations to track where the migration from eastern to western Australia is occurring so that better preventive strategies can be used.[133] By 2009, only 300 common starlings were left in Western Australia, and the state committed a further A$400,000 in that year to continue the eradication programme.[134]

In the United States, common starlings are exempt from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the taking or killing of migratory birds.[135] No permit is required to remove nests and eggs or kill juveniles or adults.[105] Research was undertaken in 1966 to identify a suitable avicide that would both kill common starlings and would readily be eaten by them. It also needed to be of low toxicity to mammals and not likely to cause the death of pets that ate dead birds. The chemical that best fitted these criteria was DRC-1339, now marketed as Starlicide.[136] In 2008, the United States government poisoned, shot or trapped 1.7 million birds, the largest number of any nuisance species to be culled.[137] In 2005, the population in the United States was estimated at 140 million birds,[138] around 45% of the global total of 310 million.[1]

The likelihood of starlings to damage the feeding operations is dependent on the number of livestock, favoring areas with more livestock.[139] They also show preference for feed types which were not whole corn but smaller feeds, creating more damage in areas where the feed was smaller.[139] They also showed feed preference based on composition.[140] A proposed solution to this problem is use of less palatable feed by agriculturalists, perhaps relying on larger feed types or feed which is less favorable in composition to starlings.[140][139] An additional solution for mitigation control involves ensuring that livestock feeding operations are not within close proximity of each other or starling roosts.[139] Weather conditions also had an impact on whether starlings visited livestock feeding operations, with a higher likelihood to visit in colder temperatures or following snow storms.[141]

Alternatives to managing starling populations in agricultural areas include the use of starlicide. Use of starlicide has been found to reduce the spread of Salmonella enterica in livestock and other diseases found among livestock.[141] Though this does not appear to eliminate introduction of these diseases completely, it has been determined that they are contributors and starling control is a successful mitigation strategy.[141]

In science and culture

Pet starling
Pet in a cage

Common starlings may be kept as pets or as laboratory animals. Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz wrote of them in his book King Solomon's Ring as "the poor man's dog" and "something to love",[142] because nestlings are easily obtained from the wild and after careful hand rearing they are straightforward to look after.[142][143] They adapt well to captivity, and thrive on a diet of standard bird feed and mealworms. Several birds may be kept in the same cage, and their inquisitiveness makes them easy to train or study. The only disadvantages are their messy and indiscriminate defecation habits and the need to take precautions against diseases that may be transmitted to humans. As a laboratory bird, the common starling is second in numbers only to the domestic pigeon.[42]

The common starling's gift for mimicry has long been recognised. In the medieval Welsh Mabinogion, Branwen tamed a common starling, "taught it words", and sent it across the Irish Sea with a message to her brothers, Bran and Manawydan, who then sailed from Wales to Ireland to rescue her.[144] Pliny the Elder claimed that these birds could be taught to speak whole sentences in Latin and Greek, and in Henry IV, William Shakespeare had Hotspur declare "The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I'll holler 'Mortimer!' Nay I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion."

Mozart's
Mozart's "starling song"

Mozart had a pet common starling which could sing part of his Piano Concerto in G Major (KV. 453).[131] He had bought it from a shop after hearing it sing a phrase from a work he wrote six weeks previously, which had not yet been performed in public. He became very attached to the bird and arranged an elaborate funeral for it when it died three years later. It has been suggested that his A Musical Joke (K. 522) might be written in the comical, inconsequential style of a starling's vocalisation.[37] Other people who have owned common starlings report how adept they are at picking up phrases and expressions. The words have no meaning for the starling, so they often mix them up or use them on what to humans are inappropriate occasions in their songs.[145] Their ability at mimicry is so great that strangers have looked in vain for the human they think they have just heard speak.[37]

Common starlings are trapped for food in some Arab countries.[15] The meat is tough and of low quality, so it is casseroled or made into pâté. One recipe said it should be stewed "until tender, however long that may be". Even when correctly prepared, it may still be seen as an acquired taste.[131][146][147]

Notes

  1. ^ The table is based on Feare & Craig (1998).[15] Parentheses indicate that the scientific name has changed from that originally given.
  2. ^ This form was described by Hodgson as S. indicus in Gray's Zoological Miscellany of 1831, and may have taxonomic priority over humii.[16][17]

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Common starling: Brief Summary

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The common starling or European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), also known simply as the starling in Great Britain and Ireland, is a medium-sized passerine bird in the starling family, Sturnidae. It is about 20 cm (8 in) long and has glossy black plumage with a metallic sheen, which is speckled with white at some times of year. The legs are pink and the bill is black in winter and yellow in summer; young birds have browner plumage than the adults. It is a noisy bird, especially in communal roosts and other gregarious situations, with an unmusical but varied song. Its gift for mimicry has been noted in literature including the Mabinogion and the works of Pliny the Elder and William Shakespeare.

The common starling has about 12 subspecies breeding in open habitats across its native range in temperate Europe and across the Palearctic to western Mongolia, and it has been introduced to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa and Fiji. This bird is resident in western and southern Europe and southwestern Asia, while northeastern populations migrate south and west in the winter within the breeding range and also further south to Iberia and North Africa. The common starling builds an untidy nest in a natural or artificial cavity in which four or five glossy, pale blue eggs are laid. These take two weeks to hatch and the young remain in the nest for another three weeks. There are normally one or two breeding attempts each year. This species is omnivorous, taking a wide range of invertebrates, as well as seeds and fruit. It is hunted by various mammals and birds of prey, and is host to a range of external and internal parasites.

Large flocks typical of this species can be beneficial to agriculture by controlling invertebrate pests; however, starlings can also be pests themselves when they feed on fruit and sprouting crops. Common starlings may also be a nuisance through the noise and mess caused by their large urban roosts. Introduced populations in particular have been subjected to a range of controls, including culling, but these have had limited success, except in preventing the colonisation of Western Australia.

The species has declined in numbers in parts of northern and western Europe since the 1980s due to fewer grassland invertebrates being available as food for growing chicks. Despite this, its huge global population is not thought to be declining significantly, so the common starling is classified as being of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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