Figure 1. European starling, Sturnus vulgaris
Starlings are robin-sized birds weighing about 3.2 ounces (90 g). Adults are dark with light speckles on the feathers. The speckles may not show at a distance (Fig. 1). The bill of both sexes is yellow during the reproductive cycle (January to June) and dark at other times. Juveniles are pale brown to gray.
Starlings generally are chunky and hump-backed in appearance, with a shape similar to that of a meadowlark. The tail is short, and the wings have a triangular shape when outstretched in flight. Starling flight is direct and swift, not rising and falling like the flight of many blackbirds.
European starlings were brought into the United States from Europe. They were released in New York City in 1890 and 1891 by an individual who wanted to introduce to the United States all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. Since that time, they have increased in numbers and spread across the country. They were first observed in Nebraska in 1930, in Colorado in 1939, and in California in 1942. The starling population in the United States is estimated at 140 million birds.
Starlings nest in holes or cavities almost anywhere, including tree cavities, birdhouses, and holes in buildings or cliff faces. Females lay 4 to 7 eggs which hatch after 11 to 13 days of incubation. Young leave the nest when they are about 21 days old. Both parents help build the nest, incubate the eggs, and feed the young. Sometimes 2 clutches of eggs are laid per season, but most of the production is from the first brood fledged.
Although starlings are not always migratory, some will migrate up to several hundred miles, while others may remain in the same general area throughout the year. Hatching-year starlings are more likely to migrate than adults, and they tend to migrate farther.
Outside the breeding season, starlings feed and roost together in flocks. Starling and blackbird flocks often roost together in urban landscape trees or in small dense woodlots or overcrowded tree groves. They choose trees or groves that offer ample perches so that all may roost together. In colder weather they choose dense vegetation such as coniferous trees or structures (such as barns, urban structures) that provide protection from wind and cold. Fall-roosting flocks are relatively small (from several hundred to several thousand birds), but because they are spread over large geographic areas, they can cause widespread nuisance problems. In contrast, winter-roosting flocks are large (sometimes exceeding 1 million birds), but are often confined to a few acres (ha). Some of the winter roosting areas are occupied by starlings year after year (Fig. 2). Each day they may fly 15 to 30 or more miles (24 to 48 km) from roosting to feeding sites. During the day when not feeding, they may perch in smaller groups inside farm buildings or in other warm, protected spots in and around urban structures.
Since their introduction into New York in the 1890s, starlings have spread across the continental United States, northward to Alaska and the southern half of Canada, and southward into northern Mexico. They are native to Eurasia, but have also been introduced in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere.
Starlings are found in a wide variety of habitats including cities, towns, farms, ranches, open woodlands, fields, and lawns. Ideal nesting habitat would include areas with trees or other structures that have cavities suitable for nesting and short grass (turf) areas or grazed pastures for foraging. Ideal winter habitat would include areas with structures and/or tall trees for daytime loafing (resting) and nighttime roosting; and grazed pastures, open water areas, and livestock facilities for foraging.
Starlings consume a variety of foods, including fruits and seeds of both wild and cultivated varieties. Insects, especially Coleoptera and Lepidoptera lawn grubs, and other invertebrates total about one-half of the diet overall, and are especially important during the spring breeding season. Other items including livestock rations and food in garbage become an important food base for wintering starlings.
Ron J. Johnson. Extension Wildlife Specialist. Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife. University of Nebraska Lincoln, Nebraska 68583-0819
James F. Glahn. Research Wildlife Biologist. Denver Wildlife Research Center. USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services. Mississippi Research Station. Mississippi State, Mississippi 39762-6099