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European starling

Sturnus vulgaris

What do they look like?

European starlings grow to a length of about 21.5 centimeters (8.5 inches). They weigh between 2.5 and 3.5 ounces. Both males and females have iridescent green glossed feathers covering the body. The black wings sometimes have a highlight of green and purple. In winter, when the tips of the feathers have eroded away, a white or cream colored "flecking" appears against a dusky black background, primarily on the breast. The shape of these feathers is rounded at the base and jagged toward the tip. Males have elongated feathers over the breast. Females have short and petite plumes.

Starling legs are reddish brown. Their eyes are dark brown. The bill is yellow during the mating season, and black the rest of the year. Males have a bluish spot at the base of their beaks, while the female displays a reddish pink speck. Young birds are overall pale-brown until they grow their adult feathers. Young birds have a brownish-black bill all year.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    70.0 to 100.0 g
    2.47 to 3.52 oz
  • Average length
    21.5 cm
    8.46 in
  • Average wingspan
    40.0 cm
    15.75 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.877 W
    AnAge

Where do they live?

European starlings are found in all of the world's biogeographic regions except the Neotropics and Antarctica. They are native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. In this native range they can be found from Central Siberia in the east to the Azores in the west, from Norway in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south. The northern and eastern most populations in the native range are migratory. Migrating birds spend the winter in western and southern Europe, Africa north of the Sahara, Egypt, northern Arabia, northern Iran, and the plains of northern India.

European starlings were intentionally introduced to North America by humans in 1890. Of the one hundred starlings released that year in New York City's Central Park, only 15 pairs survived. Over the next one hundred years the number of European starlings increased a million times. Because of their wide range of ecological tolerance, these birds were able to rapidly expand their range across the United States. European starlings are found today from the Atlantic to the Pacific (east to west) and from southern Canada to northern Mexico (north to south). European starlings have also been introduced to southern Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

What kind of habitat do they need?

European starlings are lowland birds. They are found mainly in non-mountainous areas. During the breeding season, these birds require holes for nesting and fields of vegetation for feeding. For the remainder of the year European starlings use a larger range of habitats, from open moorland to salt marshes. European starlings are cavity nesters. They will use nestboxes, holes and crevices in trees, and corners and holes in buildings for their nests. This has put them in direct competition with many native North American birds that are also cavity nesters, such as eastern bluebirds and black-capped chickadees. European starlings are more aggressive than these birds. They often kill them in order to get the nest cavity.

European starlings prefer to forage in open habitats, such as short grasslands and pastures. Because they usually feed and travel in flocks, being in the open allows all the members of the flock to keep an eye out for predators.

How do they reproduce?

The breeding season for European starlings generally begins in the spring and ends in early summer. The length of the breeding season changes from year to year. European starlings synchronize their first clutch of the year, which means that all of the starlings in an area lay eggs at the same time. They lay from 4 to 7 eggs in their nest over a week and begin incubating them full time when the second to last egg is laid. European starling eggs are glossy bluish or greenish-white. Both parents incubate their eggs, which means the parents sit on the eggs to keep them warm until they hatch. Females have more highly developed incubation patches (bare patches of skin on their breast) and spend more time incubating than the males. Young European starlings hatch after 12 to 15 days of incubation.

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    European starlings may lay more than one clutch in the same breeding season, particularly if the eggs or babies from the first clutch did not survive. It is more common for birds living in southern areas to have more than one clutch, probably because the breeding season is longer.
  • Breeding season
    European starlings breed from March to July.
  • Range eggs per season
    4.0 to 7.0
  • Average eggs per season
    5
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    15.0 (high) days
  • Range fledging age
    21.0 to 23.0 days

European starling chicks are helpless at birth. At first the parents feed them only soft, animal foods, but as they grow older the parents bring a wider variety of plant and animal foods. Both parents feed the young and remove their fecal sacs from the nest. Young leave the nest after 21 to 23 days but are fed by the parents for a few days after this. Males give little or no parental care to the last of clutches if they have had more than one clutch in the season. Once the young are living independently, they form flocks with other young birds.

How long do they live?

One wild European starling lived for 15 years and 3 months. Captive birds may be expected to have maximum lifespans of slightly longer than this.

How do they behave?

European starlings are "secondary cavity nesters." This means they require natural or man made cavities in which to nest. Because they are aggressive and their population keeps growing, they are outcompeting native birds in North America that also use cavities as nest sites. This has resulted in population declines for some wren, swallow, and bluebird populations.

European starlings construct their nests of grasses, twigs, and moss. They line them with fresh leaves. These leaves are periodically replaced by the birds and may serve an antibiotic or antifungal purpose.

European starlings are social birds, flocking at all times with other starlings. These birds breed in bunches, feed in flocks, and migrate in masses. In addition to being very social, starlings are tolerant of human disturbance. They will live around people in urban areas.

How do they communicate with each other?

European starlings are highly vocal all year long except when they are molting, when they are silent. The songs of males are highly variable and have many components. They warble, click, whistle, creak, chirrup, and gurgle. European starlings are also accomplished mimics, often copying songs or sounds of other birds and animals (frog calls, goats, cats), or even of mechanical sounds. European starlings can be trained to mimic human sounds in captivity. Other calls include a "querrr?" sound used while in flight, a metallic 'chip' that warns of a predator's presence, and a snarling call made while attacking intruders.

What do they eat?

European starlings eat a wide variety of foods. They take both plant and animal foods at all times of the year. Young birds eat mostly animal foods such as soft invertebrates. The adults eat primarily plant foods. They forage for food by searching on the ground in open areas with short or sparse vegetation. Starlings sometimes follow farm equipment as it turns up the soil. They also feed in intertidal zones, sewage treatment beds, garbage, farmyards, and feeding areas for domestic stock. They will feed in trees where there are ripening fruit or large numbers of caterpillars.

Foods eaten include seeds, insects, small vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, and fruits. The most common animals eaten by the starling are centipedes, spiders, moths, and earthworms. The most popular plants are berries, seeds, apples, pears, plums, and cherries. European starlings take most of their food from on or just below the ground surface.

The shape of their skull and muscles allow them to insert their bills into the ground or a tough food item and pry an opening by opening their bill. They have binocular vision while doing this, enabling them to see what they are doing and distinguish freshly unearthed food items.

European starlings need to drink free-standing water, although they get some moisture from the foods they eat.

  • Animal Foods
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • terrestrial worms
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

European starlings typically congregate in large groups called flocks, except during the breeding season. Flocking together helps protect them from predators by increasing the number of birds that can watch for predators. Birds in the flock quickly warn others about the approach of a predator.

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

The abundance of European starlings makes them an important prey base for many small predators. European starlings are able to reproduce and invade new areas rapidly because they have many babies each year and because they can use a variety of foods and habitats. This also means that they can have large impacts on seed and fruit crops and insect populations. In areas where they are non-native they can displace the native species of birds that typically play these roles.

Do they cause problems?

European starlings are agricultural pests. They damage crops and berries. European starlings also aggressively compete with native birds for the insects they eat.

Established roosts of European starlings lead to an accumulation of droppings nearby. The droppings can cause some diseases to be transmitted to humans, including Salmonella, Histoplasmosis, and a number of other bacterial and viral diseases. European starlings can also spread bird mites to poultry on farms.

Their abundance at airports, and especially on runways, poses a threat to airplane traffic. Large numbers of European starlings can cause dangerous and expensive damage to jet engines when they get sucked in.

How do they interact with us?

European starlings are beneficial to our environment because they eat pests that threaten agriculture. Starlings work indirectly to reduce numbers of the major insects that damage farm crops. The European starling is also beneficial as a food source for some cultures along the Mediterranean Sea.

Are they endangered?

The starling is one of the most abundant and most common birds in the world.

Some more information...

European starlings were first introduced to the United States in New York City, in 1890. Eugene Scheffland let loose one hundred starlings in Central Park, because he wanted every animal in William Shakespeare's plays to be found in the United States. From these 100 birds, there was rapid growth and spread. Within 75 years, European starlings had spread across almost all of North America.

Contributors

James Chow (author), Fresno City College, Carl Johansson (editor), Fresno City College.

References

Craig, A., C. Feare. 1999. The Starling. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

European Starling Facts, 2000. "Ohio History Central" (On-line). Accessed July 05, 2000 at http://www.ohiokids.org/kids/ohc/nature/animals/birds/starling.html.

Feare, C. 1984. The Starling. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kahane, D. 1988. The Invasion of California by the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles Press.

Lytha Studios, 2000. "www.starlings.net" (On-line). Accessed 16 August 2000 at http://www.starlings.net.

Starling, 2000. ". Microsoft, Encarta Online Encyclopedia" (On-line). Accessed July 05, 2000 at http://encarta.msn.com.

Starling, 2000. "World Book Online Americas Edition" (On-line). Accessed July 04, 2000 at http://www.worldbookonline.com/wbol/wbAuth/na/ar/fs/ar529920.htm.

Weber, W. 1980. . Health Hazards from Pigeons, Starlings, and English Sparrows. New York: Thomson Publications.

 
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Chow, J. 2000. "Sturnus vulgaris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 24, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Sturnus_vulgaris/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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