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Environment

Wild About Utah: Common Starling

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Starling Murmuration Courtesy Wikimedia and Copyright Walter Baxter Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

It all began so innocently. Let’s bring over a few European starlings to add authenticity for a Shakespearean theatrical. That was 1890. Today, North America has about half of the world population of starlings, approaching a few hundred million. 

Following many years of demonizing this bird, I have become convinced they do have value beyond compost. In fact, they are utterly fascinating. My first glimmer came when a friend suggested I read “Arnie, the Darling Starling.” I have yet to read it, but he convinced me this bird was worth taking a second look. 

Since that time in the mid 70’s, I’ve witnessed many of the starling’s remarkable behaviors. It possesses a maddening ability to imitate other birds- killdeer, red tail hawk, evening grosbeak, etc., with such accuracy I always stop to look for a killdeer perched in a tree- gotcha Jack! The starling's gift for mimicry has long been recognised. Mozart had a pet starling which could sing part of his Piano Concerto in G Major. He became very attached to the bird and arranged an elaborate funeral for it when it died three years later. 

Starlings are commonly kept as pets in Europe and widely used as laboratory animals, second only to pigeons. Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz wrote of them in his book King Solomon's Ring as "the poor man's dog" and "something to love". Their inquisitiveness makes them easy to train or study.

I’ve always been amazed by their immense winter flocks called murmurations- thousands of birds reminiscent of what the now extinct passenger pigeons must have resembled, and for these massive bird clouds to change form and direction in milliseconds, which I observed when a merlin falcon plummeted into an enormous flock that split in half. I stood in disbelief as the cloud morphed, then saw the merlin emerge just below the bifurcated cloud. 

The starling has 12 subspecies breeding in open habitats across its native range in temperate Europe to western Mongolia, and it has been introduced to seven other countries from Australia to Fiji

Major declines in populations have occurred from 1980 onward in much of Europe and Eurasia.  The decline appears to be caused by intensive farming methods used in northern Europe, and the reduced supply of grassland invertebrates needed for the nestlings. This in contrast to 1949, when so many starlings landed on the clock hands of London's Big Ben that it stopped the clock!

Our love hate starling relationships are evident in how various countries view them. In Spain, starlings are hunted commercially as a food item. In France, it is classified as a pest, and can be killed throughout most of the year. In Great Britain, Starlings are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. In 2008, the United States government killed 1.7 million starlings, the largest number of any nuisance species to be culled. 

A closing note- starlings are trapped for food in some Arab countries. The meat is tough and of low quality, so it is casseroled or made into pâté. Even when correctly prepared, it may still be seen as an acquired taste. You may wish to remove them from your grocery list.