Starling (family Sturnidae)

It seems like strange and exotic species tend to dominate this blog (and indeed, most talk about animals). There are some good reasons for this: many of those species are very charismatic (like lions and tigers), or very strange looking (tenrecs and aye-ayes for example). Many of these species are also endangered, so a lot of research has been put into studying the behaviour and ecology of these animals. But still, some very common and well known species are very interesting, and today’s animal is one of those.

Starlings are a group of birds in the family Sturnidae, and they are a very widespread and common family. They were originally found in Europe, Africa and Asia, but have since been introduced to North America and Australia. Who knew that our friendly neighbourhood starling is actually an invasive species? Starlings were actually introduced to America by the American Acclimatization Society, which was an society dedicated to bringing European species into North America, I guess so people from Europe didn’t miss their homes as much. One story claims that the chair of the Society had decided that any bird mentioned by Shakespeare should be introduced, and since starlings are mentioned in Henry IV, here they are.

A common starling, the type we have in North America (thanks to Shakespeare!) Image source: Wikipedia

A common starling, the type we have in North America (thanks to Shakespeare!)
Image source: Wikipedia

Starlings are generally small or medium sized, with the smallest species measuring 15 centimetres and the largest measuring up to 36 centimetres. A large number of starling species are brightly coloured, although this is due to iridescence, not actual pigmentation of the feathers. Common starlings (the ones we have in North America) have iridescent green feathers, giving them a pretty metallic sheen.

Starlings are extremely sociable birds – have you ever watched those giant, wheeling flocks of birds that move so well together it’s mesmerizing? I was on a ferry when I was younger when I first really noticed these flocks. We called them showbirds, because it looked like they performing just for us. It turns out these birds were actually starlings, and since then I’ve always taken a moment to watch starlings flock, because they are quite amazing at it. Whenever you’re outside at dusk, look for starling flocks, and you’ll know one when you see it. I don’t know how they do it (some people better at physics than me do, but I prefer to think it’s magic), but it’s a very impressive thing to see. Also, starling flocks are called murmurations, which is a pretty funny word.

A murmuration of starlings at dusk. Trust me, photos don't do them justice.  Image credit: Fayez Nureldin

A murmuration of starlings at dusk. Trust me, photos don’t do them justice.
Image credit: Fayez Nureldin

Another things starlings are very good at is talking. They have a number of different calls, but are particularly adept at imitating other birds and animals, such as frogs, goats or cats. They even pick up on man-made sounds, like phones ringing or car horns. Local populations of starlings have their own mimicry dialects, and starlings in captivity can be trained to mimic human voices. They can also recognize other starlings by their particular calls. In fact, starlings are so impressive in the call department that they are used in the study of the evolution of the human language.

So I hope you now have an appreciation for the starling, a resourceful and intelligent group of birds. Only 15 breeding pairs survived the first winter in New York (where they were originally released), and have since grown into a group millions strong, and are now a huge pest in North America. You have to at least respect the starling for being so resourceful. I certainly do.

Cover image source: https://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/s/starling/

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s