Starlings

January 07, 2022

Melissa has been texting me in bed lately about the birds that have been hitting my feeders early in the morning.  By the time I get up and around they are mostly gone, but I still have been able to get some shots of the smaller sparrows and wrens that frequent after the larger birds have had their fill.  This morning I was determined to catch the larger birds, but when I came to the window, they had been replaced by a flock of several hundred starlings.  A smaller flock had descended on the feeders in December but there was no food available.  Instead, they smarmed the field behind our house for a short time and quickly left.  This time the feeders had been recently filled so there was food available.  The starlings swooped in, drove the other birds out, and had their fill.

When I looked online, I found the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is a very successful family of small birds that inhabit much of Europe as well as Asia, Africa, and North America.  An interesting fact on coloration is their ability to turn from spotted white to glossy and dark each year without shedding their feathers.  The new feathers grown in fall have bold white tips, giving them their spots.  By spring the tips have worn away, and the rest of the feather is dark and iridescent brown.  This color change is called “wear molt.”  Starlings are most famous for their fantastic flying displays, called murmurations, where they gather in the thousands and move across the sky in one synchronous swirling mass.  Starling murmurations are considered one of nature’s most remarkable and ethereal displays.  These displays are performed as a survival strategy that makes it more difficult to single out a bird by predators.

When the starlings invaded our feeders, Melissa tried to rap on the glass to scare them away.  This is true for many people who try and keep starlings away from their gardens and bird feeders.  The starlings will quickly consume anything available and leave nothing for other birds.  Starlings have evolved to feed in flocks, and consuming vast amounts of food in a short space of time is an advantage.  Most of our flock spent their time in the grass rather than the feeders.  Even in the cold of winter, the grass contains an ample supply of worms, larvae, beetles, and other insects, as well as seeds, grains, and nuts. Moving across the grassy field is easy for starlings as they have particularly strong legs developed for hopping. After the starlings left I refilled the feeders.

Thoughts:  The Bird Facts site suggested if you want to feed starlings you need to remember they are a soft bill species.  Soft bill seed mixes are also suitable for robins, thrushes, blackbirds, and wagtails and contain a mix of soft grains, sunflower hearts, raisins, sultanas, and mealworms.  The site warned that a flock of hungry starlings will make quick work of almost anything you put out for them.  That includes the more expensive suet or bird seed mixes that are put out.  Whether it is a swarming flock of starlings or a single marauding squirrel, I have found there is no effective way to keep them out of the feeders.  I have instead learned to enjoy the antics of these occasional visitors as part of the amazing cycle of life.  Do the work.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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