Bird of the Week: European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)


Every European Starling in North America is descended from one of 100 birds released in Central Park in the early 1890s.  Shakespearian enthusiasts of the day also released House Sparrows in a bid to introduce into America all the birds Shakespeare mentioned.  Although I have a degree in English Literature, I’m not willing to go as far as introducing invasive species as part of my admiration for the Bard.  As a result of these enthusiasts’ actions, the European Starling is now among the most numerous songbirds in the United States – they live year-round across the lower 48.

This species goes from spotted with white in the winter to glossy and dark in the summer, but they don’t molt like many birds to.  They grow new feathers in the fall that have the white tips characteristic of them in the winter, and by spring those white tips have worn away leaving just the iridescent brown and purple.  Scientists refer to this as “wear molt”.  Regardless of season, they have a long slender bill, short & pointed wings, and a short tail.

European Starlings coexist easily with humans, nesting in the holes and crevices of buildings as well as in birdhouses, purple martin gourds (if allowed to stay), and trees.  The male starts the nest then brings the female around to check it out.  She will complete the nest, often throwing out some of the nesting materials supplied by the male.  She will lay 4 to 6 eggs and do most of the incubation which takes about 12 days.  The nestlings get food from both parents and will fledge after approximately 21 days.  The parents will raise two broods per year.

These birds are not finicky eaters – they’ll consume insects, berries, and seeds.  On my backyard feeder, they are voracious and tend to arrive in groups of at least 4 or 5.  Even if I’m not looking at the feeder, I can tell when they arrive by their raspy, squeaking call. They also forage in open areas by zig zagging rapidly across the ground and poking their bills into the ground every couple of steps.

Although I’m not a huge fan of the European Starling, since it’s an invasive species, I do admire their adaptability and toughness.  They are not easily scared away by other birds and will fight for room on my feeder with mockingbirds and jays.  Additionally, their murmurations are amazing, with thousands of birds swirling and diving in groups without colliding into one another.  It’s quite the sight.

Compiled by Lisa S. Graham.  Sources include All About Birds (Cornell) and Audubon Field Guide.  Photo credits:  Matt Davis – Macaulay Library