EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris)
DESCRIPTION: The European starling, an Old World passerine, is black but with small light stripes and an iridescent plumage, in the green and purple range. The bill is yellow, the eyes are black and the legs are pink. Sexes are similar. This species is about 20 cm long (8 inches) long.
NAME: The English name ‘Starling’ would stem from an old English word meaning ‘star’, and the diminutive suffix ‘ling’. This would be because the silhouette of the bird in the sky would evoke the image of a star (Choate). In North American the bird is called ‘European’, whereas in Europe it is called ‘Common’ Starling. The Latin genus name ‘Sturnus’ means ‘starling’ and the species name ‘vulgaris’ means ‘common’ (not ‘vulgar’).
HABITAT: Open areas such as farms, fields, meadows, and urban areas, where they have well adapted.
DIET: Starlings can be beneficial when eating insects, but less so when they eat seeds, grain or fruits, as they can then cause considerable damage to crops.
NESTING: In its native Europe, this bird is building its nest in cavities. Starlings will use various man-made structures to build their nests, including mail boxes, barbecues and even inside tubular traffic light poles. They are also known to occupy woodpeckers cavities. Around six light green-blue eggs are laid, which are incubated by both parents. They also both feed their chicks.
DISTRIBUTION: The European (or common) starling is native to Eurasia, and has been introduced to a large number of countries. It is expanding its range as well. It is a year-round resident in North America, but migrates short distances in Europe.
ON PEI: The European starling is breeding on Prince Edward Island and is a year-round resident. There is a large group that roosts under the Hillsborough bridge in Charlottetown. They can be seen doing murmurations in the sky at dusk.
CONSERVATION: Starlings are estimated to number more than 310 million globally. They are not considered at risk. However in North America they are having a negative impact on bluebirds and woodpeckers, as they compete with them for nesting cavities.
NOTES: This bird is very social and some flocks can contain thousands, even millions of them. They are known to put on a spectacular show called ‘murmuration’, a unique display of evolving aerial shapes in the sky as they change direction en masse while flying. Many photos and videos are available online illustrating this phenomenon, more frequent in the fall and before sunset, before roosting for the night.
The most frequent explanation to this behavior is protection from predators. It can be a risk to aircraft. Sometimes this strategy can turn deadly for the starlings if they take a wrong turn and some crash on the ground.
European starlings practice ‘anting‘, i.e. rubbing ants on their bodies. It is not known exactly why birds do this, but one explanation would be that they use the formic acid from ants as a pesticide to get rid of parasites. Another explanation would be to rid the ants of their formic acid before eating them (as a ‘thank you’ after they cleaned their feathers).
SIMILAR SPECIES: Common Grackle, Rusty Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird
https://www.mba-aom.ca/jsp/toc.jsp (Maritimes Breeding Bird Atlas)
https://nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/european-starling (Missouri Department of Conservation)
This video below shows a starling murmuration above the Hillsborough bridge in Charlottetown: