by Beth Gardner
Noisy. Drab. Pest. These are common reactions when I mention the starling. That is totally understandable. They are indeed loud, nonnative, and commonplace. But they have one amazing super power. Starlings form impressively large flocks, and to watch these flocks fly can be one of the great wonders of nature.
But before we dive into those incredible flocks, let’s review the basics. European Starling (also called Common Starling) are originally from Europe and East Asia. In the early 1890’s a flock of 100 birds was intentionally introduced in New York City’s Central Park. The rumor is that this was done by Shakespeare admirers because the bard mentions them in one of his works. If true, this would certainly have been an exercise in poor judgment. Needless to say these 100 pilgrim starlings were successful and now the starling is among the most numerous species in the continental United States. They are found in every state except Hawaii and also found in Canada and Mexico.
Starlings owe their great success to their flexible diet and broad habitat selection. They are true omnivores and happy to snack on everything from insects to worms to fruit to whatever is in your bird feeder. They tolerate most forested or grassland habitats but really thrive where there are patches of short grasses. Golf courses, city parks, natural meadows, and barley fields work just fine. Starlings will swoop down in numbers to strut and probe through the short grasses to see what turns up. They have a comical zig-zag walking pattern. This massive gathering of hungry beaks makes them both a nuisance and a blessing. They are reviled for destroying sprouting grains and stealing corn. And yet they consume myriads of harmful insects. At one time, the former Soviet Union found so much value in their pest management; they even installed thousands of nest boxes to encourage more starlings.
At first glance, starlings may not be as glamorous as other songbirds. Their song is not lovely but it is certainly loud. Their summertime colors tend to be uniform dark and do not catch the eye like our other songbirds. But if you see them up close, their colors are delightful. They are glossy with shades of iridescent purples, dark blue and dark green with very subtle, thin white edging on feathers. They have much more color than grackles or blackbirds. During the winter, they suddenly sprout lots of bright white spots all over their back and breasts. This species does not molt its feathers all at once. Starlings are unusual in that in the fall they gradually grow new feathers that push out the old ones. The new feathers have a white tip and for a while those tips give the appearance of spots. The tips eventually wear away, leaving the darker iridescence behind.
Where starlings really stand out are their great flocks. Here in the Flathead Valley, they start to flock up in late summer and remain in flocks all winter. It is a pleasure to see a hundred or so suddenly rise en masse from a field, dash along in one direction, no wait…let’s go in another direction! No actually…let’s go here! And so forth. They seem to turn in perfect unison. Sometimes a random starling will fly upstream against the flock direction and then suddenly turn around to merge. Was it previously leading and now needs a break? Scientists have long wondered how birds that fly in tight formations, such as starlings, do so without colliding with each other. The leading theory is they very closely watch the surrounding six to seven birds and turn within fractions of seconds to match their direction.
Our local flocks are impressive but nothing like what happens in Europe. In their native range, starlings form very massive flocks. I do mean Massive. Over one million birds! In the evenings, these super-massive flocks twist and turn across the fields on their way to the evening roost site. This is called a “murmuration”. It is a wondrous sight of dark spots twisting, weaving, soaring across the landscape. Search for “murmuration” on the Internet to see some short videos of this event. The Flathead will never have anything as large as that, but next time you see a flock of starling moving across the fields, enjoy the marvel.