Sunday, April 12, 2009

In the backyard... European Starling

European StarlingEuropean Starling, Forest Grove, Oregon on 11 April 2009 by Greg Gillson.


It's too bad that the European Starling is such a pest. The breeding adult, as in the photo above taken yesterday, with the yellow bill, metallic purple and green iridescence, and white spangles, is actually quite a pretty bird. However, because of its overwhelming numbers and harmful behavior to North America's native birds, this introduced bird is universally hated by American birders.

Birds were released in New York City in 1890. They swarmed the continent, reaching Oregon by 1943. By the 1960's they were abundant, with counts of a million birds or more in Portland, Oregon during winter Christmas Bird Counts.

Starlings nest in tree cavities, throwing out whatever bird may be nesting there, and are blamed for the decline of populations of Lewis's Woodpeckers, Western Bluebirds, Purple Martins, and other cavity nesting species in the Pacific Northwest and across North America. For instance, Gabrielson and Jewett wrote in their 1940 book, Birds of Oregon, that the Western Bluebird in western Oregon, "vies with the robin for first rank as a dooryard bird." By the 1970's the Western Bluebird was eliminated as a backyard bird in western Oregon, and only the tireless efforts of individuals to create "Bluebird Trails" of specially designed bird houses, has returned the bluebird to many lowland areas west of the Cascades.

Not all the blame should be placed at the feet of the Starling, however. Certainly the introduction of another cavity nesting bird from Europe, the House Sparrow (North America releases from 1850-1870), pesticide spraying, expansion of towns and the elimination of family farms and orchards, as well as eliminating standing dead trees in timber harvesting practices, all contributed to the decline in bluebirds and other cavity nesting birds.

In the non-breeding season, the plumage of European Starling is less bright. The bill turns black and the white spangles disappear. Huge fall and winter flocks of slate gray juveniles and blackish adults roost at night in orchards or bridge structures. Black clouds of thousands of birds are often noted in the sky at dusk as birds make their way to the night roost.

Starlings are not related to the New World blackbirds. For one thing, starlings have short tails and shorter, triangular wings. Starlings are closely related to mynas and are fairly good mimics, adding the calls of killdeer, meadowlark, quail, pewee, and other birds to their repertoire, which consists primarily of unmusical squeals, grating cackles, and loud whistles.

Pretty or not, the European Starling is an example of why non-native plants and animals should not be released into the wild.