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"The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I’ll holler ‘Mortimer!’ Nay I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”

But for this single reference to Starlings by William Shakespeare, in the play "Henry IV", New York inhabitant Eugene Schieffelin would not have imported 80 of the species Sturnus vulgaris and turned them lose on a March day in 1890, in Central Park.  Today, 122 years later, from that tiny beachhead in New York City, the Starling is now the most common bird in all of North America, inhabiting all 50 of the United States, as well as Canada and parts of Mexico.  Their population is estimated to be some 220 million strong.

This is the story of one of the most implacable, most overwhelming and most effective alien invasions ever.  But this alien didn't come from Outer Space, though their huge, awe inspiring flocks (called murmurations) often assume unwordly dimensions and shapes.  They came from England.

Starling murmuration -

Mr Schieffelin also attempted to introduce other birds to America, such as the Skylark, Nightingale, Bullfinch and Chaffinch, but those efforts were unsuccessful.  Only his Starlings proved themselves able to "live long and prosper."

In 1928, May Thacher Cooke, an ornithologist working for the U.S. Biological Survey (which later became the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service), published a seminal monologue "The Spread of the European Starling in North America."   Cooke describes in fascinating detail how long it took the Starling to become established in the greater New York City area and begin its expansion to other parts of the country.  Shieffelin was 63 years old when he imported the first 80 Starlings from England (he imported another 80 of the birds the following year, just for good measure), and by the time he passed away in 1906 the bird had become firmly established, in great numbers, throughout the area surrounding NYC.  It was also found moving up the Hudson River Valley, and into Connecticut, northern New Jersey and Philadelphia, PA.

By 1916, Starlings were common throughout New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and were becoming established in Mass., Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and were first appearing as far west as Ohio.  6 years later, they were found breeding as far south as Spartanburg, SC, in West Virginia, throughout Maryland and Virginia, and were becoming increasingly numerous in Ohio.  By 1927, they had spread over the Great Lakes region into southern Canada, were firmly established in the Tennessee Valley/Southern Piedmont, and were spotted as far west as Clearwater, Kansas.

Though an attempt had been made to introduce Starlings on the West Coast in 1889, a year before Schieffelin's release in Central Park, those birds did not survive more than 2 or three years. Nonetheless, the birds continued their march westward from the East Coast, crossing the Rocky Mountains by WWII and reaching the West Coast by the Fifties.  Today, they are ubiquitous.  Everywhere.  As I stated above, they are now the most common bird in the United States.  And, it can be easily argued, the most disliked.  Spectacular as they are en masse, there is something undeniably locust-like about them as well.

Autumn Starling Roost

The key to the Starlings ability to so thoroughly conquer much of North America is found in the bird's enormous adaptability and prolific breeding.  A pair of Starlings can raise three separate broods of as many as 6 chicks each season.  As they made there way west, they most often first established themselves in urban areas and then spread out into the surrounding countryside.  So, they are equally at home in the city as well as more rural areas.  The only niche they seem not to thrive in is deep forests and alpine regions.  

They are omnivores, and will eat everything from insects, grubs, larvae to seeds, grain, berries and small fruit...even field potatoes and discarded french fries.  There voracious appetite, coupled with their immense numbers, has made them a major agricultural pest.  In an article published by the NYT on the occasion of the 100 year anniversary of the Starling's introduction, they wrote:

the starling is ubiquitous, with its purple and green iridescent plumage and its rasping, insistent call. It has distinguished itself as one of the costliest and most noxious birds on our continent.  Roosting in hordes of up to a million, starlings can devour vast stores of seed and fruit, offsetting whatever benefit they confer by eating insects. In a single day, a cloud of omnivorous starlings can gobble up 20 tons of potatoes.
That "song", if you can call it that?  It has been described this way:  "Whistle. Pop. Whirrrr. Zzzt. Repeat. Many, many, many times."  Whenever I have a bunch of Starlings foraging in my yard, I find the sounds they make to be unpleasant, even disturbing in some way.  But however you personally feel about their song, the economic costs associated with their invasion of the continent cannot be denied.

The USDA estimates that Starlings cause $800 million in damage to agricultural crops each year.  Additionally, their feces (which can be prodigious with large flocks) spreads disease to cattle and other livestock which costs several hundred million dollars in vet bills and medicines.  Their impact upon dairy farmers and ranchers in Washington State is so serious that large scale use of traps and poisoned baits are being used, which kill hundreds of thousands of birds each year.  Still, that effort has been described as "like trying to bail out the ocean with a thimble."

In California's grape region, and parts of the country where berries are important crops, Starlings can be devastating, and control methods can be both of limited effect and costly/labor intensive.  Sound cannons quickly lose their effectiveness, as Starlings, like crows, become used to the noise and quickly discern that they are not threatening.

In urban environments, roosts of Starlings number into the hundreds of thousands can congregate on bridges, towers, buildings and other structures.  Their feces, over time, takes the paint off of metal structures and etches concrete and stone.  A project to repaint Prince George, Virginia's Benjamin Harrison Bridge, for example, could not be completely until Starling droppings which in places was as much as 18 inches deep, were removed.  We have the same problem here in Portland with some of our old, metal bridges, that must be raised and lowered according to river traffic.  The Starling feces can damage the mechanisms that operate the drawbridges.

In the natural environment, Starlings have been blamed for much of the decline in population of other native birds which, like the Starling, are cavity nesters.  The Bluebird, swallows, flickers, woodpeckers and purple marten have all experienced significant population declines.  Some of that can be laid at the feet of habitat loss, but a significant factor is also the aggressive competition from Starlings for nesting sites.

Unlike other birds, Starlings won't hollow out their own nesting cavity.  They are squatters and usurpers.  Martens, especially, are susceptible to nesting competition from Starlings, as they are completely dependent upon multi-unit birdhouses provided by humans east of the Rocky Mountains.  A single pair of Starlings, if allowed to settle into a 50 unit Martin house, will prevent an entire flock of of Martens from nesting there, even if they have been regular visitors in preceding years.  And those martens will likely not return the following year.  Both Martens and the Eastern Bluebird are approaching the point of near extinction.

Unlike our native birds, which have established migratory patterns that take them away to as far south as Brazil in the winter, Starlings are not really migratory in the common sense of the word.  May Thacher Cooke described them as "vagrants."  They will move around in the winter, but there movement is more haphazard and regional, sometimes even local.  They never really leave the U.S., so when native migratory birds return in the Spring to seek food and shelter for their breeding season, the Starling is already there and firmly entrenched.

Ironically, as the Starling has thrived and exploded in population here in North America, their numbers are on the decline in their native British Isles and parts of Northern Europe.  It's unclear what is going on, but some have placed the blame on changing agricultural landscapes, loss of woodlots, and fewer farm buildings that used to serve as roosting sites.  Now, fully 30% of the worldwide population of European Starlings reside in North America.

The various attempts over the years at controlling Starlings have ranged from the ridiculous to the macabre:  mechanical hawks, applying grease to building ledges, live electrical wires, roman candles, recordings of distress calls, poisoned baits and even irradiating them with cobalt-60 isotopes.  As the NYT suggested in their anniversary article:

The most innovative solution, though, was advanced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1931. ''When the breasts of these birds have been soaked in a soda-salt solution for 12 hours and then parboiled in water, which is afterwards discarded, they may be used in a meat pie that compares fairly well with one made of blackbirds or English sparrows.'' But, cautioned the author, the gamy taste was not for everyone.

As I said, Resistance is futile.  But at least one benefit can be attributed to the Starling.  Peregrine falcons find them very tasty, and the huge flocks of Starlings have enabled the peregrine falcon to claw its way back from extinction.

Further reading/sources:

Originally posted to Keith930 on Sun Nov 18, 2012 at 01:33 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech, DKOMA, and Community Spotlight.

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