Dear Bird Folks,
I have been feeding birds in the same yard for over twenty years and have never had any starlings before. But lately starlings have taken over my suet feeder. Has there been some kind of explosion in their local population?
– Eric, Barnstable, MA
Good for you, Eric,
You recognized the new visitors to your feeder. European Starlings are distinctive looking birds, with an estimated North American population of perhaps 200 million individuals. Yet many people have trouble identifying them. So far this winter I’ve received dozens of emails containing photos of “mystery” birds. The vast majority of these unidentified birds are starlings. Seeing starlings on a feeder doesn’t sit well with some people because these invasive birds are on just about everybody’s “least favorite” bird list. (FYI: Starlings and another least favorite bird, the native Common Grackle, are totally different birds. I’ve spent years correcting people who call grackles, starlings and vice versa, but it never seems to sink in. Even my own mother couldn’t remember the difference, no matter how many times I told her. Then again, I can’t remember how to eat dinner without putting my elbows on the table, so I guess we’re even.)
As you probably can guess by their name, European Starlings aren’t native birds. How did they get here? In the late 1800s, some bonehead by the name of Eugene Schieffelin thought it would be cool for the New World to have all the birds mentioned in the writings of William Shakespeare. This was a stupid idea. (But at least Eugene didn’t want us all to speak like Shakespeare. Can you imagine?) Regardless of why they are here, Starlings are a very adaptable species and it didn’t take long for them to make themselves at home. In just a few decades their population went from none to millions. As you might expect, the introduction of starlings has had a negative impact on our native birds, but I’m not going to get into that right now. Too many people dislike starlings already, so I won’t pile on. Besides, it’s not the birds’ fault. I blame Shakespeare. Or, said another way: Thine censure must beest putteth upon thoust Shakespeare. (That was my best Shakespeare impersonation.)
Now you are thinking, “If there are millions of starlings in the country, why aren’t we more familiar with them? Is Cape Cod starling-free?” Oh no, the Cape has a huge population of starlings. We might even have more starlings than we have the dreaded grackles. But unlike grackles, starlings aren’t in love with our yards or our feeders. They would much rather spend their day feeding in the area’s marshes. Even though starlings are card-carrying omnivores, their food of choice is invertebrates (little buggy and wormy things) and Cape Cod’s salt marshes are heaven for invertebrates, and thus starlings. Usually starlings can find plenty to eat on their own, but as we talked about last week, this winter’s super deep freeze has forced many birds out of their comfort zone. Hungry robins are suddenly clinging to birdfeeders and desperate ducks are scrounging for scraps on the ground below. Robins, and ducks might be out of their comfort zone, but starlings have no comfort zone. Like college kids, wherever they can find something free to eat, it is home to them.
Starlings will eat birdseed, but their favorite feeder item is suet. To them, suet is basically invertebrates compressed into a handy cake form. In some areas, usually far away from natural food, a flock of starlings will attack a suet feeder like football players going after a fumble. In fact, many people are forced to use specially made starling-proof suet feeders. We sell a lot of these feeders, but most of my customers buy them to keep away the grackles. Although now that I think about it, I’m not totally sure which birds they are actually having trouble with. This grackle vs. starling thing is even starting to confuse me. (It’s all my mother’s fault.) In addition to being a bit piggish, another reason most Americans don’t love European Starlings is the way the bird looks. They are kind of ugly. In the winter starlings are dull and spotted. In the summer they are a bit more colorful, but even then their shiny feathers give the birds a greasy, ratty look (which is an odd term, because even rats don’t look ratty). It’s too bad Eugene Schieffelin didn’t feel the need to import a different starling. There are many species of starlings throughout the world and some of them look quite spectacular. Asia has the handsome Rosy Starling and in East Africa there is the appropriately named Superb Starling. The Superb Starling is a stunning looking bird that is half orange and half blue with bright white eyes, looking like a cross between a robin, a bluebird and a Tic Tac.
If there was ever going to be a winter to see starlings at your feeder, Eric, this is the one. I’m sure the birds would rather be in the marsh, chowing down lovely invertebrates but that won’t occur until things warm up a bit, which I hear might happen sometime in the next six months…if we’re lucky. In the meantime, just put up with them. Starlings may not be the best looking birds and will eat more than their fair share, but at least they don’t eat with their elbows on the table, which is more than they can say for me.