Odds are you’ve probably seen a European starling, whether it was just one bird wheeling its way across the sky or a huge noisy flock. Starlings are songbirds common in Asia, Europe, northern Africa, and thanks to human introduction, North America. They adapt well to human development and can be seen in rural and urban environments. This article dives into 10 interesting facts about starlings. You’ll learn about their habitat, behavior, and some notable traits. Keep reading to learn more!
10 Facts about starlings
1. They are beneficial insect eaters and seed dispersers.
It may be hard to believe since they can have a negative reputation in North America, but starlings can be beneficial birds!
Starlings perform valuable ecological functions in the grasslands, forests, and marshlands of their native habitat. By eating a variety of fruits and berries, they can spread the seeds of these plants in their droppings. This increases the range of certain plants and helps maintain biodiversity.
One of the main benefits of the European Starling is its role in controlling insect populations. European Starlings are known to feed on a wide variety of insects, including grasshoppers, beetles, and caterpillars. In agricultural areas, they can help to reduce the damage caused by insect pests, which can save farmers money and reduce the need for pesticides.
2. They have iridescent feathers.
European Starling adults have shiny, iridescent plumage in shades of purples and greens. Juveniles look quite different until they get their adult feathers. They are mostly a soft brown with a dark belly covered in white spots.
Starlings’ feathers are iridescent because of their color. On the contrary, they have a metallic sheen because of the physical structure of the feather itself. The feather’s parts bend light away, refracting it in sections instead of reflecting it all at once, like other surfaces would.
3. All starlings in North America are likely descended from just 100 birds
The European Starling, or Common Starling, is native to Europe, north Africa and parts of Asia. They was introduced to North America in 1890 by a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts who wanted to introduce all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works to the United States. The group released about 100 European Starlings in New York’s Central Park. The birds quickly adapted to their new environment and began to spread throughout North America, eventually becoming one of the most common bird species on the continent.
Today there are an estimated 200 million Europeans Starlings from Alaska to Mexico, all descended from those small groups introduced less than 150 years ago.
4. They are highly adaptable.
European Starlings are a highly adaptable bird species that can be found in a wide variety of habitats throughout their range. Some of the habitats where European Starlings are commonly found include:
- Urban and suburban areas – European Starlings are well adapted to living in cities and suburbs, where they can find food and nesting sites in parks, gardens, and other green spaces.
- Agricultural areas – European Starlings are often found in agricultural areas, where they can feed on insects and seeds in fields and orchards.
- Woodlands and forests – European Starlings are also found in woodlands and forests, where they can find food and nesting sites in trees and other vegetation.
- Wetlands – European Starlings are known to frequent wetland habitats, such as marshes and swamps, where they can find food and nesting sites in the dense vegetation.
5. They participate in coordinated flocking behavior called a murmuration
A starling murmuration is a fascinating phenomenon that occurs when thousands of starlings come together in a coordinated flocking behavior. During a murmuration, the starlings fly together in large, swirling patterns that seem to move as one, creating a mesmerizing display in the sky.
The exact reasons for starling murmurations are not fully understood, but it is believed that they are a defense mechanism against predators. By flying together in a coordinated pattern, the starlings are able to confuse and evade predators, such as hawks and falcons.
Starling murmurations typically occur at dusk, just before the starlings settle down to roost for the night. The birds will gather together in large flocks, sometimes numbering in the thousands, and begin to fly in intricate patterns through the sky. The flock will move in unison, with each bird following the movements of its neighbors, creating a mesmerizing display of synchronized flight.
The movements of a starling murmuration can be unpredictable and seem almost choreographed. The flock will twist and turn through the sky, sometimes splitting apart and then coming back together again. The patterns can be so complex that they almost seem to defy explanation.
6. They can mimic sounds from humans.
Starlings are known for their ability to mimic a wide variety of sounds, including human speech, animal calls, and even mechanical noises. This ability to mimic sounds is due to the structure of the starling’s vocal tract, which allows it to produce a wide range of sounds.
When a starling mimics a sound, it listens carefully to the sound and then repeats it back using a series of clicks, whistles, and other vocalizations. The bird is able to adjust the pitch, tone, and rhythm of its vocalizations to match the sound it is mimicking, creating a surprisingly accurate imitation.
Starlings are not born with the ability to mimic sounds – they must learn it from other birds. Young starlings will listen to the sounds around them and practice mimicking them until they are able to produce accurate imitations.
7. They unfortunately can be agricultural pests
As we mentioned above, starlings can be a help to farmers by controlling insect populations. Unfortunately there is another side to that coin, where they can be harmful.
One of the main ways that starlings can be a pest to farmers is through their feeding habits. Starlings are known to feed on a wide variety of crops, including fruits, vegetables, and grains. They can cause significant damage to crops, resulting in reduced yields and economic losses for farmers.
Starlings can also consume livestock feed, which can be a problem for farmers who raise animals for meat or dairy products. This can result in increased feed costs and reduced profitability for farmers.
In addition, starlings can contaminate food and water sources with their droppings. This can be a problem for farmers who produce food for human consumption, as it can lead to foodborne illnesses and other health risks.
They can be pesky at your bird feeder too, showing up in groups and quickly eating all the seeds. We have some tips for how to avoid that here.
8. Parents feed their young until they’re old enough to fledge.
Starling chicks are helpless and blind when they hatch. They need mom and dad’s help to eat, grow, and learn how to function as a bird. Depending on the species, starlings can be monogamous or polygamous.
Females usually only have one partner regardless of the males. The parents stay together for the duration of the breeding season.
Females usually incubate the young, but both parents feed the chicks. They keep the nest clean so they can reuse it once or even twice with more broods.
9. They can break down alcohol quickly.
It might not be apparent at first, but rotten fruit ferments quickly, producing alcohol. When animals eat that fruit, they run the risk of getting “drunk”. Being drunk can put a bird at risk of not being able to fly, not sensing danger, and having slower reaction times.
To counter this risk of intoxication, starlings evolved a tolerance to alcohol. By weight, they have more Alcohol Dehydrogenase activity than many other birds, animals, or even people. This high rate of alcohol resorption and metabolism helps to ensure that if the starlings accidentally have a feast on some boozy fruit, they won’t be tipping over on the ground or crashing into things when trying to fly.
10. They are more heavily spotted during the winter
Many species of birds have a twice-per-year feather change, molting after the breeding season ends, and then again before the next one begins. But starlings don’t have to go through as much trouble.
In the winter, you may notice they are much more speckled. In fall they will grow feathers that have white tips. As they go about their business over the winter, the white tips will slowly break and fall off due to wear and tear. By the time spring rolls around and it’s time to breed, they will have lost all the white tips and their head and chest will appear smooth and dark. The melanin in the dark part of their feathers protects against abrasion, so only the white tip is lost.
Anna is a wildlife biologist who graduated from Texas A&M in 2020. She enjoys feeding, studying, and taking photos of wild birds and hummingbirds. She once worked as the hummingbird department manager at a Wild Birds Unlimited store.