Starlings are robin sized birds weighing about 3.2 ounces. Adults are dark with light speckles on the feathers. The speckles may not show at a distance. The bill of both sexes is yellow during the reproductive cycle (January-June) and dark at other times. Juveniles are pale brown to gray. Starlings generally are chunky and hump backed in appearance, with a shape similar to that of a meadowlark. The tail is short, and the wings have a triangular shape when outstretched in flight. Starling flight is direct and swift, not rising and falling like the flight of many blackbirds.
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General Biology, Reproduction and Behavior
European starlings were brought into the United States from Europe. They were released in New York City in 1890 and 1891 by an individual who wanted to introduce to the United States all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. Since that time, they have increased in numbers and spread across the country. They were first observed in Nebraska in 1930, in Colorado in 1939, and in California in 1942. The starling population in the United States is estimated at 140 million birds.
Starlings nest in holes or cavities almost anywhere, including tree cavities, birdhouses, and holes in buildings or cliff faces. Females lay 4 to 7 eggs which hatch after 11 to 13 days of incubation. Young leave the nest when they are about 21 days old. Both parents help build the nest, incubate the eggs, and feed the young. Sometimes 2 clutches of eggs are laid per season, but most of the production is from the first brood fledged.
Although starlings are not always migratory, some with migrate up to several hundred miles, while others may remain in the same general area throughout the year. Hatching year starlings are more likely to migrate than adults, and they tend to migrate farther.
Outside the breeding season, starlings feed and roost together in flocks. Starling and blackbird flocks often roost together in urban landscape trees or in small dense woodlots or overcrowded tree groves. They choose trees or groves that offer ample perches so that all may roost together. In colder weather they choose dense vegetation such as coniferous trees or structures that provide protection from wind and cold. Fall roosting flocks are relatively small, but because they are spread over large geographic areas, they can cause widespread nuisance problems. In contrast, winter roosting flocks are large, but are often confined to a few acres. Some of the winter roosting areas are occupied by starlings year after year. Each day they may fly 15 to 30 or more miles from roosting to feeding sites. During the day when not feeding, they may perch in smaller groups inside farm buildings or in other warm, protected spots in and around urban structures.
Damage and Damage Identification
Starlings are frequently considered pests because of the problems they cause, especially at livestock facilities and near urban roosts. Starlings may selectively eat the high protein supplements that are often added to livestock rations.
Starlings may also be responsible for transferring disease from one livestock facility to another. This is of particular concern to swine producers. Tests have shown that the transmissible gastroenteritis virus can pass through the digestive tract of a starling and be infectious in the starling feces. Researchers, however, have also found healthy swine in lots with infected starlings. This indicates that even infected starlings may not always transmit the disease, especially if starling interaction with pigs in minimized. Although starlings may be involved in the spread of other livestock diseases, their role in transmission of these diseases is not yet understood.
Starlings cause other damage by consuming cultivated fruits such as grapes, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, figs, apples, and cherries. They were recently found to damage ripening corn, a problem primarily associated with blackbirds. In some areas starlings pull sprouting grains, particularly winter wheat, and eat the planted seed. Starlings may damage turf on golf courses as they probe for grubs, but the frequency and extent of such damage is not well documented.
The growing urbanization of wintering starling flocks seeking warmth and shelter for roosting may have serious consequences. Large roosts that occur in buildings, industrial structures, or along with blackbird species, in trees near homes that are a problem in both rural and urban sites because of health concerns, filth, noise and odor. In addition, slippery accumulations of droppings pose safety hazards at industrial structures, and the acidity of droppings is corrosive.
Starling and blackbird roosts located near airports pose an aircraft safety hazard because of the potential for birds to be ingested into jet engines, resulting in aircraft damage or loss and at times in human injuries. In 1960, an Electra aircraft in Boston collided with a flock of starlings soon after takeoff, resulting in a crash landing and 62 fatalities. Although only about 6% of bird-aircraft strikes are associated with starlings or blackbirds, these species represent a substantial management challenge at airports.
One of the more serious health concerns is the fungal respiratory disease histoplasmosis. The fungus may grow in the soils beneath bird roosts, and spores become airborne in dry weather, particularly when the site is disturbed. Although most cases of histoplasmosis are mild or even unnoticed, this disease can, in rare cases, cause blindness and/or death. Individuals who are weakened by other health conditions or who do not have endemic immunity are at greater risk from histoplasmosis.
Starlings also compete with native cavity nesting birds such as bluebirds, flickers and other woodpeckers, purple martins and wood ducks for nest sites. One reprot showed that, where nest cavities were limited, starlings had severe impacts on local populations of native cavity nesting species.