New York City Birdwatcher’s Companion: European Starling

This post is an excerpt from the New York City Birdwatcher’s Companion.


Natural History
The European starling, also known as the common starling, is a gregarious species that forms giant flocks reaching a million individuals. When a flock spots a bird of prey, the group will clump into a dense ball that resembles a storm cloud. The starling plumage is an oily, iridescent black, with touches of green and purple when exposed to sunlight. White tips at the end of feathers produce an intricate spotting pattern across the body. Starlings have a tapered yellow bill that probes for insects in blades of grass. Their jaw muscle is exceptionally strong to control the opening and closing of the bill when hunting. They are known for their mimicry and repeated vocalizations; an individual can retain a catalog of over 20 bird songs in her head. Starlings are hole-nesters and are known to evict bluebirds and woodpeckers from their home. They are a non-native bird that was introduced to North America in the late 19th Century.


Urban History
In 1890, drug manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin released 60 starlings into Central Park. He wanted New Yorkers to experience the birds he read about in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, but he could not anticipate their resourcefulness and invasive tendencies. By 1950, starlings were found as far as Mexico, and today, over 200 million birds inhabit North America. There are a number of anecdotes that illustrate why the starling is considered a pest to American birdwatchers. In 1960, some 10,000 starlings flew into the engine of an airplane heading out from Boston, crashing the aircraft and killing 62 passengers. The starling carries diseases that afflict agricultural workers, including the fungal lung ailment histoplasmosis. This invasive species threatens the Eastern bluebird, a state bird of New York. Although the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2003 contended that starlings had no effect on native populations, they intimidate locals with their massive flocks and incessant chatter.


Identification Tips
– Yellow bill, oily greenish-black plumage
– Iridescent speckles across body
– Triangular wings with short, square tail

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