October 3, 2013
European Starling in date palm
European Starling in date palm
Recently, at my outdoor workplace, I heard a couple people who wouldn’t know a sparrow from an eagle, squealing about “the birds” and looked up to see a flock of European Starlings, perhaps a hundred individuals strong, milling about directly overhead.  It’s that time of year again when most serious birders’ most disdained species aggregates and forms “murmurations,” one of nature’s most beautiful phenomena.  I’ve written about it before (jimburnsphotos.com/pages/12-1-11.html), and I know it’s incongruous, but every avian species, even the much despised European Starling, is fascinating in its own way.

With the ubiquity of starlings all over Arizona, indeed all over the country, it’s hard to believe they were not recorded in this state until 1946.  Most birders know the story of their origin in North America—in 1890 a Shakespeare fancier thought it would be cool to introduce into this country all the birds mentioned in The Bard’s plays, so he released 100 starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, into Central Park in New York--one hundred in 1890, an estimated 200 million(!) today.  Starlings are the only one of his introductions that “took.”

Though perhaps unrealized by most birders, European Starlings are accomplished and notorious mimics and, for the record, it was in this context that Shakespeare inserted the species into Henry IV, the one and only reference in his entire worksEven if you’re an avid play goer, you’ll probably miss it, but if you pay attention next time starlings are around, you’ll hear high pitched whistles, gurgling, musical trills, and harsh shrieks.  Both males and females vocalize, they can be taught to mimic human speech, and the calls of at least twenty other species are part of their repertoire.  In our neighborhood we often hear them and think it’s the Rosy-faced Lovebirds visiting our fountain and feeders.

What’s most not to like about starlings is that they outcompete our native species for nesting cavities.  This is especially true here in the Southwest where they evict the local woodpeckers from the Saguaro holes the latter have hammered out, then forage for insects and worms in the short grass lawns brought to the desert by that other species which has flocked here in great numbers since 1946.  Gila Woodpeckers seem to be the most targeted species, perhaps because Gilded Flickers, larger and more aggressive, seem more capable of holding their own against the invaders.  Here in our own yard we have a Saguaro which has hosted Gilas only once in nine breeding seasons, but starlings have nested multiple times.

Sturnus vulgaris.  Starlings were apparently well known to antiquity because sturnus is Latin for “starling,” and their numbers and perhaps their habits too were well known since vulgaris, “common,” comes to us from the Latin as well.  Pity landowners in the Midwest and Southeast who suffer the noise and filth of winter roosts of over a million starlings, but for a different perspective on this species visit any local residential park where flocks aggregate from October through the winter.  You’ll see and hear interesting highlights from European Starlings’ natural history and, if you’re lucky you may get to witness a mini-murmuration.