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Origins of the European Starling in the United States

By David Ian Withers

Few people alive today can remember a Tennessee without the gurgling sounds of European Starlings (Sternus vulgaris)- can you?

It came as a surprise to me many years ago to learn that this ubiquitous member of the avian fauna of my childhood in North Carolina was not actually native to North America. In fact, blame for its presence in all our lives rests in part on none other than William Shakespeare of merry Olde England.

Shakespeare aficionados will recall that the starling figured in Henry IV: "Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer'..." It seems that what was known as the "American Acclimatization Society" for European settlers released some 80-100 birds in Central Park (New York City) in 1890-91. The head of this particular organization, Eugene Scheiffelin, desired to introduce all birds ever mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.

Although several previous attempts in the 1800s had failed- this one took- just look out any window! What a devilish way to honor the Bard’s memory- a tribute that has had a marked and negative impact on our native birds.

For the first 10 years following the introduction, descendants of these original "founder" birds stayed in the greater New York City area. However, with their ability to adapt to a variety of habitats, produce two broods a season, and their diverse dietary preferences- European Starlings expanded their range quickly and probably were established in Tennessee before 1930.

Expansion south and west of New York was more rapid than establishment north, but the invasion had pressed into upper Alaska by 1970.

Dr. George Baxter, Emeritus Professor of Zoology at the University of Wyoming, was a young man in the 1930s and remembers the species making its first appearance in the Cowboy State during that time.

The late Roy Anderson, former assistant director with Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), was a student at Oregon State University around 1950 when he was able to identify one of the first starlings to invade Oregon. He readily recognized them from his home state of Tennessee.

Oddly enough, the Alfred Hitchcock-ian invasion of these birds coincided with the decline and extinction of the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) and Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). The last Carolina parakeet was observed in 1904 in Florida (with some unsubstantiated reports as late as 1938). The last to die in captivity was in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo, which was also the last site and year for the Passenger pigeon.

Have you ever walked in an old field and returned covered with cockleburs? Cocklebur was the primary food of huge flocks of parakeets. With the disappearance of this bird, cocklebur goes essentially unchecked. So, in the first 20 years of this century, we not only lost a native (and valuable) species, we received another occupying a completely different niche. When was the last time you saw a starling eat a cocklebur?

Most Tennesseans have had some kind of interaction with a starling or flocks thereof, and often they have left a negative impression- with good reason.

Starlings seasonally occur in large flocks, inhabiting trees, the exterior of buildings, and to the dismay of electric distributors, power substations. The latter is a popular haunt in the wintertime because of the heat released by transformers and other equipment.

Starlings en masse have the capacity of shorting out electric lines from copious amounts of guano (fecal matter), not to mention the ill health effects of the same. But perhaps some people consider them beneficial because flying insects and other bugs comprise a great deal of their diet seasonally. However, many of the bugs we might consider pests are active at night- when starlings are not! Also, by consuming copious quantities of insects by day, starlings are in essence "stealing" food from native birds.

Beyond their eating habits, starlings have impacted native birds most by their habit of being aggressive "landlords." Many native cavity-nesting species, including woodpeckers, martins and bluebirds, are evicted by starlings during the breeding season. This is especially troublesome for woodpeckers, which as "primary cavity nesters" are responsible for excavating these desirable habitats in the first place.

But despite the noise, guano, and impacts to native fauna, starlings do have their good -or at least interesting- qualities. Starlings, as members of the Sturnidae family, are cousins to the Mynah bird and are outstanding mimics. Accordingly, they have been popular as cage birds in Europe for years. Hence the bird in Henry IV might learn to say ‘Mortimer.’ But they were at one time considered a game bird in Europe, and were hunted for food.

Notably, this species has not developed a similar following in the U.S., and current estimates predict over 200 million in the United States.

I must admit a certain fascination with the species, though. In the last year, I had the opportunity to rehabilitate a starling with a broken leg, much to the chagrin and amusement of other biologists.

This did afford me a chance to learn more about the bird on a "personal" basis. When I was keeping him, I was amazed with the variety and complexity of song he could produce. It was as though three birds were singing at once! I never actually taught him to speak (though I tried to teach him my boss’ name), but I did observe him "pick up" some lingo from a resident cockatiel. And he did have a specific chirp he would use in greeting me- even if I passed by at a distance.

For a time, I let him have intermittent roaming rights in the house and he took to sitting on my shoulder while I was doing chores. However, his proclivity for relieving himself at will cut short that habit, and I reverted to keeping him in a cage outside, where he could interact with his own kind.

Until his death, "Tinker," as he was known, lived in youth-oriented nature center, where students learned about the dangers of bringing exotic species to this country.

If ever you should keep a starling- not that I am recommending it- prepare to observe some very unusual adaptations and behaviors. Rather than clamping the bill shut, starlings’ jaw muscles work to force it open- giving them a great advantage when digging for grubs, worms, and bugs in the yard. But it also means they make short work of the newspaper on the bottom of the cage!

You might think that a proper control for starling overpopulation is free-ranging (or feral) house cats. Guess Again! Certainly, house cats in the U.S. kill some number of starlings annually, but this pales in comparison to the number of native birds they take.

Like starlings, house cats are not native to Tennessee, and our indigenous birds are not adapted to their wiles. However, starlings have probably had a much longer exposure to house cats (in Europe), and have perhaps adapted over time to these small, ferocious felines.

If you are a cat owner, as am I, keep your pet indoors, or allow them outside only by night when few perching birds are active. Spay or neuter your cat to help control one of the greatest threats to our native songbirds.

Barring a major change in climate, disease, or an increase in predators, the European starling is here to stay. But we can still provide for our native species as "backyard birders" while not becoming overly welcoming to starlings. By not providing specific food items and by constructing bird houses with openings too small for starlings and other measures, you can still "go native" at your home or business.

Contact TWRA in Nashville for information about helping our native birds and other wildlife, and the Web sites below for more stellar information on Sturnus vulgaris.

As noted by Larry Rizzo of the Missouri Department of Conservation, "the adaptability of birds that can make a meal of a discarded French fry, nest in the golden arches and bathe in a pothole in the road deserves at least a grudging respect. We should not blame them for succeeding. But don’t blame Shakespeare, either..."

I think it is safe to say that Tennesseans are willing give the starling just the respect it deserves."

For more information, contact: Janet York, Statewide Partners in Flight Coordinator, TWRA Nongame Wildlife Program, Ellington Agricultural Center, P.O. Box 40747, Nashville, TN 37204-9979. Call TWRA at 615-781-6610, or 781-6653. The Web address is: www.state.tn.us/twra/index.html.

A Web site with a touching story of a man who tried to rescue a baby starling can be found at:

http://webcom.net/~nfhome/starling.htm.

More information about starlings can be found at:

http://www.naturalist.org/brow4/starling.php3

(David Withers is a zoologist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Division of Natural Heritage. Bob Hatcher, TWRA’s statewide nongame coordinator, contributed to this article.)

Updated March 1, 2000; Send comments to Department of Environment and Conservation.

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