The busy starling
The European starling has come a long way since its introduction into North America 128 years ago. The story goes that a man named Eugene Schieffelin wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned in William Shakespeare’s literary works into Central Park, New York City. In 1890 and 1891 he brought a total of 100 European starlings over from Europe and released them in Central Park. No one could have known at the time how the starling would take off in North America so that now starlings probably outnumber human beings in the United States and Canada.
Starlings are generally considered as pests in North America. They find flaws in our eves, roofing, bridges, sheds and other manmade structures for nesting sites. They also use woodpecker holes to house their nest. The starlings fight with woodpeckers for the openings that woodpeckers excavated for their own nest. The red-headed woodpecker of eastern United States and Ontario suffered greatly because of the aggressive starling. Other woodpeckers have coped by fighting back. Another mainland species, the eastern bluebird also lost out. Abandoned woodpecker holes were a primary source of a home for nesting bluebirds. Now they nest almost exclusively in nest boxes constructed with a hole just big enough for the slightly smaller bluebird to enter but not the starling.
The first starlings arrived in Newfoundland after the Central Park introduction in 1943. Five years later small flocks were being reported. Now they are part of the natural world of Newfoundland and Labrador. However, starlings are urban birds. You will not often see a starling far from human habitation. There are large tracts of forested land in the province where starlings never occur.
Starlings feed in open areas and situations created by man. They feed on our excesses. Starling hold their own with other city slicker birds even competing with gulls for fries at your local burger joint. They check out the dumpsters when the lid is left open. They accompany crows that have ripped open a garbage bag placed by the curb. Quick on their feet. starlings scurry in to grab tidbits of waste food before the crows can seize it.
Flocks of starlings swarm our lawns and sports fields. They march over the grass jabbing their spike-like beaks into the ground with blind faith probing for invertebrate life. The leather jacket, among the worst pests of the backyard lawn does not stand a chance when a marauding flock of starlings moves through. Everything is fair game including beetles, centipedes, ants, spiders and various grubs. In general, they are doing your lawn a service. On bigger lawns and sportsfields the flocks can number in the hundreds. They are noisy, making sounds that can only be described as coarse squawks and squeals. They move in unison flooding the air in an instant after the slightest threat of danger from the sky overhead and then simultaneously all landing again. Hawks prey on starlings. A fat starling makes a nice meal for the urban sharp-shinned hawk.
Starlings have an odd almost greasy looking plumage. They is one of the few birds that actually look more attractive in the winter than summer. The glossy blackish-green feathers of summer become tipped with silvery white during the winter. Young starlings hatched this year start out with a plain brown plumage. The adult plumage comes during the fall growing out in patches. It is common to see a young starling during the transition looking like it is dressed in a quilt comprised of plain brown and silver-speckled black squares. The young starlings could not care less if you laugh at them for their wardrobe. They are too busy living the frenzied life of the starling.
Bird sightings of the week Rare bird of the week was duck called the redhead. The redhead is a diving duck with a centre of abundance in the Prairie Provinces. Large numbers migrate to the mid-atlantic coast of the United States to spend the winter. A few occasionally stray to Atlantic Canada, but they rarely reach as far east as the island of Newfoundland. It was Alvan Buckley who discovered the drake redhead at Kenny’s Pond in St. John’s. Kenny’s Pond is a favourite pond for freshwater diving ducks so there is a good chance this attractive individual will stay around for days or maybe weeks for all to admire.
Feeder watchers enjoyed some spice this last week. A yellow-headed blackbird frequented the feeder of Eileen and Paddy Power of North Harbour, St. Mary’s Bay, for a few days. Sue Kelland-dyer of Pt. La Haye had two dickcissels at her feeder for the first time. The strong yellow wash on the breast makes the dickcissel stand out from the house sparrows with which they like to flock at the bird feeder.
There is lots of fall left to enjoy.
Behind the silver spots of the European starling lies an intelligent and successful bird.