European Starling
September 24, 2009
European Starling in date palm
European Starling in date palm
For a person who was raised in a home with a black or white moral compass, I've managed to steer through a lot of environmental issues on shades of gray. Not a hunter, but not anti-hunting, I have belonged to several conservation organizations yet dropped out of a prominent local one because they refused to emphasize education and would not compromise with the "bad guys" to achieve long sought goals. So . . . how do I feel about European Starlings?

Even casual birders are probably aware of widespread efforts to trap cowbirds and reduce populations of this brood parasite, especially in breeding areas of endangered species such as Kirtland's Warbler. I'm guessing, though, not so many realize the full story about European Starlings in this country, how they got here, their potential for environmental damage, and the efforts to control the huge numbers of this twentieth century invader.

One hundred starlings were released in New York's Central Park in 1890 by a group of ill-advised Shakespeare enthusiasts who thought it would be cool to bring to America all the birds mentioned in the his plays. Starlings now number approximately 200 million(!) from Alaska into Mexico, and last year alone upwards to two million were eliminated by federal agencies, primarily through trapping and poisoning. These are huge numbers, but the control efforts have been likened to sticking a finger into the hole of an ocean dike.

European Starlings are a fascinating species, quite beautiful at certain seasons and in certain light, so what's the big deal? Well, for starters they don't belong here, and since they are prolific breeders and hardy survivalists, they easily outcompete native species for food and nesting sites. The conservation director for National Audubon has called European Starlings a "biological machine." Vast flocks, called murmurations, have been the cause of the most deadly bird strikes in airline history, 62 dead in a 1960 Boston crash being the worst, and they are a noise, stench, and potential disease nuisance around urban parks in winter and western feedlots throughout the year. There have been nineteen air strikes at Salt Lake City International since 1990, and damage to agricultural operations is estimated at $800 million/year.

Starlings flock up in winter. I once sat on the highest butte in Papago Park, adjacent to the Phoenix Zoo, and watched a murmuration of starlings, hundreds in wave after wave, coalesce around a Cooper's hawk they had driven from a perch, an avian spectacle to be sure, and one for which we can thank the Bard of Avon. You'll understand the term "murmuration" when a flock passes over so close you hear the wingsound and then watch as it whirls out toward the horizon, at once vast and dark, then thin and indistinct as every bird in unison veers and banks over the horizon.

I understand the environmental hazards, I'm sorry they're here, and I applaud the eradication efforts. But, I recognize two things. We'll never get them all, and they are cool birds. Despite all the negatives, I still can appreciate the perfect, white chevrons against the fields of black, the subtle greens and purples that emerge with the sun, and the bright straw bill fading to black in breeding season--all the beauty that haters deny and casual observers never see on this flying black bullet. Starlings are here to stay, and on this issue I'm all gray.
European Starling
European Starling
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