Sturnus vulgariscommon starling(Also: European starling)

Geographic Range

The European Starling Sturnus vulgaris is found in all but one of the world's six biogeographical realms, excepting (so far) the Neotropics. Dispersed mainly over its natural Palearctic region (from Central Siberia in the east and the Azores in the west to Norway in the north and the Mediterranean in the south), starlings were introduced to North America in 1890. Of the one hundred starlings released that year in New York City, only fifteen pairs survived. Over the next hundred years, starlings would increase a million-fold from the original fifteen. Because of their wide range of ecological tolerance, these birds were able to rapidly expand their range across the United States. The European Starling is found today sprawled from the Atlantic to the Pacific (east to west) and from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico (north to south). (Craig and Feare 1999; Feare 1984; Kahane 1988).

Habitat

The European Starling is a bird of lowlands, found mainly on non-mountainous terrain. During breeding season, these birds require holes for nesting, as well as fields of vegetation for feeding. For the remainder of the year, the starling utilizes a larger range of habitats, from open moorland to salt marshes. The usual nesting sites are holes and crevices in trees, buildings, and rooftops. Starlings too plunder on other birds' nests and use them as their own. (Feare 1984; Kahane 1988; "Encarta Online" 2000).

Physical Description

Adult starling males and females mature to a length of about 21.5 centimeters (8.5 inches) and weigh between 2.5 and 3.5 ounces. Both males and females have similar iridescent green glossed feathers covering the back, nape, and breast. The black wings are occasionally seen with a veneer of green and purple. In winter when the tips of the feathers have eroded away, a white or cream colored "flecking" appears against a dusky black background, primarily on the breast. This accounts for the non-breeding plumage of the adult birds. The shape of these feathers is rounded at the base and jagged toward the tip. Both sexes also share similarities in leg color (reddish brown), iris color (dark brown), and in the seasonal changes in bill color (yellow during mating season, otherwise black). Sexual dimorphism is also plentiful. Males have elongated feathers over the breast, whereas females have short and petite plumes. Males sport a bluish spot at the base of their beaks, while the female displays a reddish pink speck. In juvenile birds, the fine gloss is not as noticeable as in the adults. Juvenile birds also tend to have more rounded tips at their wings. And unlike the adult yellow bill, juveniles display a brownish-black shade year-round. (Craig and Feare 1999; "European Starling Facts" 2000; Weber 1980).

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    70.0 to 100.0 g
    2.47 to 3.52 oz
  • Average length
    21.5 cm
    8.46 in
  • Average wingspan
    40.0 cm
    15.75 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.877 W
    AnAge

Reproduction

Breeding season generally begins in the spring and ends in early summer (for the Northern Hemisphere, from late March until early July and for the Southern Hemisphere, from September to December). The length of the breeding season fluctuates from year to year. Endemic starlings in Europe commonly go through three distinct phases of breeding, each resulting in a clutch of eggs. The first clutch, containing about five eggs, is usually synchronized with egg laying of other starlings in the area. The second or "intermediate clutch" of eggs, is the result of the starlings' polygynous practice. The third clutch, which is not as synchronized as the first, typically occurs about forty to fifty days after the first. Starling eggs are predominantly glossy light blue and white. Incubation of these eggs lasts about eleven days. Females, with more developed incubation patches, incubate the eggs for the majority of time. Because of the starlings' high fertility as well as its polygyny, and its ability to utalize a broad spectrum of foods and habitats starlings are able to both multiply and invade rapidly. (Craig and Feare 1999; Kahane 1988).

  • Breeding interval
    European starlings may lay more than one clutch in the same breeding season, particularly if the eggs or babies from the first clutch did not survive. It is more common for birds living in southern areas to have more than one clutch, probably because the breeding season is longer.
  • Breeding season
    European starlings breed from March to July.
  • Range eggs per season
    4.0 to 7.0
  • Average eggs per season
    5
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    15.0 (high) days
  • Range fledging age
    21.0 to 23.0 days

European starling chicks are helpless at birth. At first the parents feed them only soft, animal foods, but as they grow older the parents bring a wider variety of plant and animal foods. Both parents feed the young and remove their fecal sacs from the nest. Young leave the nest after 21 to 23 days but are fed by the parents for a few days after this. Males give little or no parental care to the last of clutches if they have had more than one clutch in the season. Once the young are living independently, they form flocks with other young birds.

Lifespan/Longevity

One wild European starling lived for 15 years and 3 months. Captive birds may be expected to have maximum lifespans of slightly longer than this.

Behavior

The European Starling is a "secondary cavity nester," a bird that requires natural or man made cavities in which to put its nest. Because of their increasing numbers and aggressive behavior, they are outcompeting native birds in North America which have historically utilized cavities as nest sites. This has resulted in population declines for various wren, swallow, and bluebird populations. Starlings are very gregarious birds, flocking at all times with other starlings. These birds breed in bunches, feed in flocks, and migrate in masses. Males use a "wing-waving" technique (where the wings flap halfway) to attract their females. Males also impress their females by singing in their nests and by decorating their nests. When the female is fertile, her male mate closely surveys his competitors. The male follows the female in every activity she takes part in. Another notable aspect of starling behavior is its relationship with humans. In addition to being very gregarious, starlings are also amenable to human disturbance, coexisting with people in urban areas. (Craig and Feare 1999; Kahane 1988).

Communication and Perception

European starlings are highly vocal all year long except when they are molting, when they are silent. The songs of males are highly variable and have many components. They warble, click, whistle, creak, chirrup, and gurgle. European starlings are also accomplished mimics, often copying songs or sounds of other birds and animals (frog calls, goats, cats), or even of mechanical sounds. European starlings can be trained to mimic human sounds in captivity. Other calls include a "querrr?" sound used while in flight, a metallic 'chip' that warns of a predator's presence, and a snarling call made while attacking intruders.

Food Habits

The omnivorous European Starling can adapt to numerous kinds of food. It uses a "prying" and "open-bill probing" technique to allow them access foods that are protected by tough skins or shells. The birds insert their bill into the food, pry it open by widening their beaks, and expose the nourishment that is found inside. Foods eaten include seeds, insects, vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, and fruits (which will be later discussed under "Negative Economic Importance"). The most common animals eaten by the starling are centipedes, spiders, moths, earthworms. The most popular plants are berries, seeds, apples, pears, plums, and cherries. (Craig and Feare 1999; Feare 1984; "World Book Online" 2000).

  • Animal Foods
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • terrestrial worms
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

Predation

European starlings typically congregate in large groups called flocks, except during the breeding season. Flocking together helps protect them from predators by increasing the number of birds that can watch for predators. Birds in the flock quickly warn others about the approach of a predator.

Ecosystem Roles

The abundance of European starlings makes them an important prey base for many small predators. European starlings are able to reproduce and invade new areas rapidly because they have many babies each year and because they can use a variety of foods and habitats. This also means that they can have large impacts on seed and fruit crops and insect populations. In areas where they are non-native they can displace the native species of birds that typically play these roles.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The starling is beneficial to our environment because it regulates the number of pests that threaten our agriculture. Starlings work indirectly to reduce numbers of the major insects that damage farm crops. Furthermore, the European starling is also beneficial as a food source for some cultures along the Mediterranean Sea. (Weber 1980; Craig and Feare 1999; "World Book Online" 2000).

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

For the most part, the European Starling is a nemesis to the environment and especially to farmers. The most common problem caused by starlings are damage to crops and berries. When these birds are not eating pests, they in turn become pests and destroy farmers' crops. Another negative impact is driving out competitors. Because starlings are so aggressive and gregarious, they force out many native species. An overabundance of starlings causes a lack of avian diversity. Another economic concern of starlings is their causing human disease. Established roosts of starlings harbor diseases such as blastomycosis, beef measles, and histoplasmosis. All three of these are serious heath risks to humans. One last economic concern is starlings' presence at airports and especially on runways. Stray starlings that have wandered off onto airport runways have caused aircraft disasters. These starlings clog up engines, causing a shutdown of the plane and its eventual descent. Although starlings do perform some good deeds, they are for the most part a nuisance to our community. (Weber 1980; Craig and Feare 1999; "European Starling Facts" 2000; Kahane 1988).

Conservation Status

The starling is one of the most abundant birds in the Sturnidae family, and is one of the most common birds in the world. (Kahane 1988; Craig and Feare 1999).

Other Comments

The European starling was first introduced to the United States in New York City, in 1890. Inspired by William Shakespeare's plays, Eugene Scheffland let loose one hundred starlings in Central Park. From these birds, there was a logarithmic growth pattern and dispersal across virtually all of North America within 75 years of introduction. ("European Starling Facts," 2000).

Starlings are accomplished mimics.

Contributors

James Chow (author), Fresno City College, Carl Johansson (editor), Fresno City College.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal

chaparral

Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cosmopolitan

having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

omnivore

an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5? N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Craig, A., C. Feare. 1999. The Starling. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

European Starling Facts, 2000. "Ohio History Central" (On-line). Accessed July 05, 2000 at http://www.ohiokids.org/kids/ohc/nature/animals/birds/starling.html.

Feare, C. 1984. The Starling. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kahane, D. 1988. The Invasion of California by the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles Press.

Lytha Studios, 2000. "www.starlings.net" (On-line). Accessed 16 August 2000 at http://www.starlings.net.

Starling, 2000. ". Microsoft, Encarta Online Encyclopedia" (On-line). Accessed July 05, 2000 at http://encarta.msn.com.

Starling, 2000. "World Book Online Americas Edition" (On-line). Accessed July 04, 2000 at http://www.worldbookonline.com/wbol/wbAuth/na/ar/fs/ar529920.htm.

Weber, W. 1980. . Health Hazards from Pigeons, Starlings, and English Sparrows. New York: Thomson Publications.