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European Starlings: The Stars of the Sky

Many fascinating birds flock to our feeders and fly across the sky, so it’s easy to overlook a few.


An European starling on a tree snag.
A European starling. (Photo courtesy of Joe Viola)

Below are five facts about one of the most populous birds across the country: the European starling, or common starling. 


They resemble the night sky 


If there was a best dressed award for birds, European starlings could win! These medium-sized birds have glossy black plumage with an iridescent sheen, like the rainbow swirl in an oil spill. In the fall, they grow new feathers that have bold, white tips. Their plumage looks like it is plucked from the night sky. By spring, these spots have worn away and their feathers return to dark iridescent brown or black. 

 

Words to know

Abundant: Available in large quantities.

Iridescent: Showing colors that seem to change when seen at different angles.

Molt: To shed old feathers, hair, skin or an old shell.

Omnivorous: Feeding on both plant and animal matter.

Populous: Having a large population.

 

Unlike most birds, starlings go through this color change without molting, or losing, their feathers. This is so unusual that scientists have come up with the term “wear molt.” This means the white tips of the feathers appear to wear away, just like the faded knees of your jeans, rather than falling out.


Their beaks also change with the seasons, from black in the winter to yellow in the summer. Both male and female birds go through these seasonal color changes and look almost identical. The best way to tell the difference between males and females is by looking at their irises, the colored part of their eyes. Males have dark brown irises and females have gray. 


They’re talented vocalists


Each bird has its own collection of sounds, with more skilled birds having a range of up to 35 types of songs and as many as 14 types of clicks. 


Males sing a lot, especially when they want to attract a mate. This is great because female starlings are interested in great communicators with complex songs. Males will often sing in front of a nest to entice a female to join him. We imagine they’re saying things like, “Hellooooo! Here I am! Look at my beautiful home that I want to share!” 


In addition to their own personal playlists, European starlings are also talented mimics. They copy the calls of up to 20 different bird species, including pewees, killdeers, robins, flickers and more. 


They have a sophisticated palate


Starlings are omnivorous. They mostly eat insects and arthropods, but also seeds and fruit. Some of their favorites include spiders, moths, mayflies, dragonflies, damselflies, grasshoppers, ants, beetles and bees.


A European starling in the grass with several insects in its beak.
A European starling with insects in its beak.

While they don’t have as many tastebuds as humans, they can taste salt, citric acid, tannins and different kinds of sugars, which is helpful because they cannot digest all sugars. What do you think some of these insects taste like?


You’ll often spot them in large groups


If you’re walking through the preserves or in your neighborhood and see a tree with what looks like hundreds of birds gathered, you might have seen starlings! Starlings gather for safety against predators, protection against harsh weather and to exchange information. 


Aside from roosting and feeding together, the large flocks fly together. These strong flyers can travel up to 48 miles to per hour. They would break the speed limit on some streets!


In addition to flying as a group, individuals also constantly change formation. A bird moves one way, several copy, then several more … until the whole flock looks like it is twisting and turning as one in the sky. This behavior is called murmuration. The way hundreds or thousands of birds fly together is nothing short of lyrical or beautiful, kind of like sky dancing! You can watch a starling murmuration in this video from the Cornell Library of Ornithology


They were part of an experiment  


Unlike many of the birds found at your feeders, the European starling is not native to Will County, or even the United States. As their name suggests, these birds originated overseas. Their home range spreads across Europe, parts of Asia and northern Africa. Today starlings can be found on all the continents around the world except Antarctica. They are one of the most abundant birds in North America, with a population of more than 200 million birds. 


A European starling on a tree branch.
(Photo courtesy of Joe Viola)

How did they get here? They didn’t fly over! Bird enthusiasts in the late 19th century captured, transported and released European bird species like the starling and tree sparrow to see if they would survive in a new environment. The most successful attempt occurred in 1890, when Eugene Schieffelin, a fan of literature, wanted to release all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. He released 35 starling pairs in Central Park in New York City. 


The starlings we see today are descended from these pairs. This means that starlings found in the United States are genetically similar. A starling found in Alaska will look almost the same as one found in Florida. 


More than 100 years later, we know the results of that experiment. Due to their numbers, starlings can outcompete some local species for food and homes, threatening those birds. 


Native or not, keep an eye and an ear out for these beautiful birds and their murmurations.

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