The European starling was first introduced to North America in 1890 to 1891 by a man named Eugene Schieffelin. It is said that during this year period, he released about 100 birds, or 50 mating pairs, inside central park in New York City. They quickly adapted to their new environment and began to spread, making their way across the country to the west coast by 1940. Today there are believed to be more than 200 million starlings nationwide.
European starlings are among the most hated and unwanted birds in the country. These medium sized black birds are about the size of a large robin and are a nuisance to backyard bird feeders everywhere. They invade in large flocks and can be difficult to get rid of.
The species of birds that people generally find to be undesirable and unwanted at their back yard feeders, such as starlings and grackles, tend to be of a larger size. You can use this fact to your advantage, and buy bird feeders that are made for smaller birds with counter weights, more on this below.
Some of the better feeders will have an adjustable mechanism for selective feeding, so you can choose the size of birds you want to feed. You can find several feeders like this on this article we did about some of the best squirrel proof bird feeders. This is one way of deterring starlings and grackles from stealing bird seed from the little guys.
In this article we’ll go over the problems starlings can cause, why they are almost universally hated, a few tips for how to get rid of them, as well as answer some other common questions about starlings.
The problems starlings can cause
They compete for nests with other birds
Starlings compete for nesting cavities with other birds such as bluebirds and woodpeckers. Adult male starlings can be especially aggressive in their searches for nesting sites. They are known to peck holes in other birds eggs, rid the nest of materials, and even kill the babies found in the nest.
Starlings have also been known to build their nests right on top of other birds nests. Sometimes burying another birds eggs and even hatchlings. Once a starling has claimed its nest site, they will protect it fiercely even being able to ward off screech owls and kestrels on some occasions.
Do starlings carry disease?
Yes, starlings are know to carry several different diseases. Many of these are easily transferable to livestock and even humans. The following diseases can potentially be passed to livestock, humans, or other animals:
- 5 bacterial diseases
- 2 fungal diseases
- 4 protozoan diseases
- 6 viral diseases
Histoplasmosis is an airborne fungal disease that can spread simply by breathing the fungal spores that originate from the starling’s feces. Most of the time symptoms for Histoplasmosis are very mild and go unnoticed however there have been serious cases resulting in blindness or even death in humans.
How does the European starling affect the ecosystem?
Starlings can adversely affects the ecosystem in many ways. As we’ve touched on starlings will evict other birds from their nests, show up in disturbingly large numbers, steal food from other birds and animals and spread disease.
Additionally, they cost the agricultural industry anywhere from 800 million to 1 billion dollars per year by eating or contaminating livestock rations, eating crops, and spreading disease and killing animals in the process. You can find some other details about the economic impact of starlings in this article.
Do starlings kill other birds?
Starlings can be very aggressive and territorial. They will drive other native birds out of their territory and nests in order to overtake that area and claim it as their own. In the process they are not above destroying nests, killing eggs, and baby birds.
So to answer this question, from what I can find they do not attack and kill other birds for any other reason than taking over their nests. However, this is very common and actually the way that starlings prefer to nest… by stealing other birds’ nests. See more on nesting below.
There are too many of them
In addition to other things we have talked about here, their sheer numbers cause problems. They are known to travel together in massive flocks called murmurations of tens of thousands of birds. They will flock together with 100,000 birds or more during migration. These massive flocks can interfere with aircraft and even cause plane crash related deaths. The most common time to see numbers this large is going to be in the fall or winter.
They do this for a few reasons. Mainly because there is safety in numbers. When there are so many thousands of birds together it makes it difficult for predators like hawks to single one out. You may see other birds like blackbirds flocking together in these swarms as a tactic to evade predators.
They are very loud in flocks
As a side effect of traveling and roosting in such large numbers, they can create terrible noise pollution. When they find a spot to roost in large numbers, they can be extremely loud. The noise generated by these massive roosts can pose significant problems in residential areas. There are several ways, some not particularly effective, that can dissuade these large roosts from taking up residence on your property.
How do you keep starlings away from bird feeders?
1. Get a starling proof bird feeder
If you are looking for starling proof bird feeders then you will find a few options out there. However, because starlings are just about the same size as a cardinal, you could also be blocking cardinals, blue jays and other similar sized feeder birds from your feeder in the process. You could try something like the squirrel buster which has a counter weight that closes the feeder holes on heavier animals. However from what I have read, while it may deter some starlings, they are also clever and may figure these out eventually.
Another option for a starling proof bird feeder is to get one that has a cage around the tube feeder. A model like this one on Amazon is definitely going to keep the starlings out because they won’t be able to fit through the cage openings. However it will also keep similar sized feeder birds out like cardinals. Cardinals are just about everyone’s favorite birds to see at your feeder so this can pose a bit of a problem. But if you are at your wits end and also utilize some other methods to get them off of your property it could simply be a temporary solution. In the end you want to get rid of them for good and bring your regular feeders back out.
If you have a suet feeder for woodpeckers and the starlings and grackles are finishing off your suet cakes in record time, an upside down feeder might help. A feeder such as this Audubon bottom feeder positions the suet cake facing down and birds need to hang from below to access the suet. Birds that like to cling, such as woodpeckers, wrens and nuthatches (as well as plenty of other birds that enjoy suet) don’t have a problem with this design. Big pest birds like Starlings and Grackles do not like to hang upside down like this. Incidentally this will also help with house sparrows if big swarms are chowing down all your suet, they don’t like to hang either.
2. Employ seasonal tactics
A method that has worked for my fellow site contributor Melanie is to change the types of feeders she puts out seasonally. This may not work in all parts of the country, but may be worth some trial and error to see if it can help you. Starlings and grackles seemed to show up much more in the summer months than the winter. By putting out caged tube feeders in the summer to keep the starlings and grackles disinterested, she was able to use non cage feeders in the winter and still feed cardinals and larger birds.
3. Remove their nesting options
Starlings are unable to fit through an opening of 1.5 inches or smaller. Therefore any birdhouses in your yard should have entrance holes no larger than 1.5 inches. You can buy birdhouses specifically sized for bluebirds such as the Nature’s Way Cedar Bluebird house with the appropriate sized opening. If you want to be very safe, you can go for an even smaller 1 inch opening that will only allow in small songbirds such as wrens and chickadees. For example the Woodlink traditional wren house. You will also need to check your property for other possible nesting spots. Plug or cover-over any unintentional holes and cavities that may be large enough to allow starlings to nest.
4. Take away their food and water sources
Generally starlings do not like safflower or nyjer (thistle) seeds. By offering this to your other birds you are denying the starling food. Starlings have softer bills than most other seed eating backyard birds. Therefore, peanuts (in the shell) and white-striped sunflower seed are more difficult for them to open and may be worth switching to temporarily until the starlings become frustrated and move on.
As a last ditch effort, you can even try removing all your feeders for a couple of weeks. This will break the cycle of the starlings coming to your yard for food, and you can put the feeders back out after they have moved on to another area.
5. Scare them off
There are a few options for frightening off a roost of starlings. None of which are a surefire way to get rid of them.
- Loud noises – Here’s an electronic bird repeller on Amazon that can be very effective for deterring starlings. It mimics the sound of predators and birds in distress, these sounds will frighten away pest birds.
- Scarecrows – You can try fake owls or hawks, here’s a falcon decoy you can get for cheap.
6. One is one too many
It’s much easier to deter one or two starlings than a whole flock. If even one shows up at your feeder, it is recommended you employ some of these tactics right away. By chasing them away early, you can prevent a larger flock from deciding your yard is a good roosting site.
7. Other options
There aren’t any fish and game laws protecting starlings and it is not illegal on a federal level to trap and humanely kill starlings. A nest box trap like this one on Amazon is a possible option for trapping them. You should check your local laws regarding trapping or killing starlings before you attempt anything of that nature. That being said I highly recommend you consider other options.
What do starlings eat?
Starlings prefer insects, fruits, grains, and will eat your bird seed if it seems to be an easy source of food. They are generally not picky eaters. While there are a few things that they do not like, such as safflower seeds, they will scavenge for food and eat your backyard feeder birds out of house and home if given the chance. Farmers are often a victim of their large numbers and appetites, losing significant amounts of crops and livestock feed to them each year.
Are starlings invasive and how did they get to North America?
Starlings are an invasive species and are not native to North America. As I mentioned above, they were introduced to America in 1890 by Eugene Schieffelin. He released 100 birds in central park in New York City because he wanted to introduce all of the birds ever mentioned in plays by William Shakespeare to North America. Unfortunately the potential destructive effects this can have on an ecosystem were not well understood in those days.
The European starling is native to Europe and Asia but has also been introduced to other countries such as Africa, Australia and New Zealand. No matter what country they are in one thing remains constant, they are considered to be pests.
Grackle vs starling, are they the same thing?
They are both lumped into the common “blackbird” group by many people. In reality the starling and the grackle are two different species, and are also separate from actual blackbirds. The grackle is a bit larger than the starling with the European starling being about 8.5 inches in length and the grackle coming in at around 12 inches in length.
A common grackle may appear black but they actually have shiny iridescent purple heads and prominent yellow eyes. A starling may also have a greenish purple tint but only in the summer months. In the winter their feathers appear to be more brown. Grackles are not usually seen in the western half of the U.S. whereas starlings are found nationwide.
Are starlings good for anything?
Not much to be honest. They do eat many insects and pests like the gypsy moth, another invasive species that was introduced to the U.S. in the 1920s and has been a major problem ever since. The gypsy moth targets many types of hardwoods and will eat the leaves off of these trees by the thousands. Starlings eat their larvae as well as the moths. Starlings can also eat many of the insects that cause farmers problems. However, as we mentioned they cause their own issues on farms with crops and livestock. Unfortunately with starlings, the pros do not seem to outweigh the cons.