Bird Watcher's General Store

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Starlings Adapt to Anywhere

Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve been seeing these huge flocks of birds flying over a Wellfleet marsh. They look like starlings. I know starlings as trashy city birds. Why would they be hanging out in the wild marshes of Wellfleet?

– Mark, Wellesley


Hey Mark,

How do you know about starlings? I didn’t even know that starlings were allowed in Wellesley. The starling is not a native bird. It was introduced into this country around 1890 by a group of boneheads who thought that America should have all the birds that were mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare might have been an ace of literature, but his choice of birds to write about is rather sketchy. Come on, Willie, with all those cool European birds to write about, you picked the starling?

Now that I think about it, even though Shakespeare talked and dressed silly, he really did choose a rather interesting bird. The European starling is a very adaptable bird. Its population in this country went from zero to 200 million in just over 100 years. While many bird populations are dropping, the relatively new starling is doing better than ever. The reason it is thriving is just like you observed, Mark. The starling can live almost anywhere, from the concrete world of the city to the bountiful marshes of Cape Cod.

Starlings eat huge amounts of harmful insects. Weevils, cutworms and Japanese beetles are scooped up by the ton. And believe it or not, starlings can imitate other bird calls and even the bark of a dog. There have been many books written by people who have raised young starlings. They claim the birds are quite smart and rather clever. However, like most introduced species, starlings have caused their share of problems. People in the city complain that they are messy. Farmers get upset when thousands of starlings plunder the food that was put out for their cows and chickens. Naturalists know that starlings take over nesting cavities that have historically been used by bluebirds, martins and swallows, thus causing a drop in the population of those native birds. In some areas, massive flocks of starlings roost in neighborhood trees. The constant squawking of the birds sends the residents out into the streets banging pots and pans, as they try to get the birds to move on. Here on the Cape we are lucky because most of the time starlings leave us alone and spend their day feeding out in the marshes. Only when the marshes freeze up do starlings hang out in our yards.

Just like you, Mark, I enjoy watching the massive flocks of starlings fly over a marsh as they get ready to settle down for the night. It is very impressive to watch the swarm maneuvering around, rather erratically, without an apparent leader, kind of like the Big Dig in Boston. And as the sun sets, I am amazed at the variety of vocalizations that come out of that huge mass of birds. Some people don’t like all that squeaking and squawking, but for me, I would much rather listen to that than people banging pots and pans or some guy in weird clothes reading Shakespeare.