Location: Red Lodge, MT
They sat like a line of loiters on a very long bench in a city park. Except they were in Montana, 30 feet up in the air on a telephone wire. They could have been in Florida (where I took this photo), Kansas or Oregon. European Starlings (Stumus vulgaris) are common wherever people live in North America. When they’re not hanging out on a high wire, tree or rooftop, they fly around in large noisy flocks, descending onto fields and parking lots alike, eating everything from bugs to berries, grains to garbage.
If birds are judged by the company they keep, European Starlings are the street gangs of the bird world, hanging out with aggressive birds such as Grackles and Crows and chasing other cavity nesters, even birds that are much larger such as Wood Ducks, from their abodes. Sometimes a European Starling will lay an egg in the nest of another starling or a different species of bird, leaving the childrearing to a stranger. No wonder European Starlings were dubbed “vulgaris”, though they weren’t always considered so lowbrow.
In the 1890’s, a group of Shakespeare lovers brought every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to New York City, including 100 European Starlings, and released them in Central Park. Those 100 birds have now grown to 200 million. The fact that they can fly fast, up to 48 miles per hour, and live long, the oldest recorded wild starling lived almost 16 years, has helped them proliferate so profusely.
European Starlings can be rather attractive in the right light, with their winter spots and glossy iridescent feathers. Interestingly, they lose their spots in the spring through a process called “wear molting”. Their feathers don’t fall out. The white wears off. Each fall, the new feathers that grow in have white tips giving the bird spots again. European Starlings resemble stocky blackbirds with short tails. They are easier to identify by sight rather than by sound as they can mimic up to 20 different species of birds. Have you ever heard a starling and thought it was something else?