The European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is a ubiquitous bird of suburban and rural landscapes across the United States and in its native European, Asian, and African range.
European Starling, Common Starling
20cm to 23cm
31cm to 40cm
60g to 90g
Starlings are small dark songbirds that vary in color through the seasons. They are upright birds with sharply pointed bills, long legs, and large feet. Starlings are shy and alert and they forage by walking, rather than hopping.
Adult males are handsome birds in the breeding season. They may appear black, although the plumage is iridescent green and purple in good light. The body is marked in white flecks, and the bill is a bright yellow color with a blueish base. Much of the iridescent sheen is lost during the non-breeding season when the wings and tail turn brownish, and the bill becomes black.
Female starlings are not easy to tell from males. They also develop the bright yellow bill during the breeding season, although the bill base tends to be pinkish in females. Females also tend to be a little less glossy than males and have shorter feathers on the throat.
Juvenile starlings are a uniform gray-brown color and may show a slightly yellow gape when very young. They develop black underparts with prominent white spots as they mature. Juveniles have pinkish legs, which are lighter than the red-brown legs of adults.
Male starlings are slightly larger than females, although the difference is not discernable in the field. Starlings are small birds, measuring approximately 7.9-9.1 inches (20-23cm) in length.
Adult starlings weigh 2.1-3.4oz (60-96g). The males are typically slightly heavier than females, although the difference is not a reliable identifier between the sexes because there is a high degree of overlap.
Starlings' wings appear short and pointed in flight, although their flying ability is beyond question. They have a wingspan of 12.2-15.8 inches (31-40cm).
Starlings have a diverse repertoire of calls and songs. They are capable of long and complex warbled and whistled songs. Their songs are used by males to attract females and to defend their territories against other males. Starlings often call to signal aggression, maintain contact with other starlings, and alert other birds to sources of danger.
Starlings are excellent mimics and often imitate the calls of other birds and even sounds like sirens and ringing telephones. Captive starlings can even learn to mimic human speech.
European Starling calling whilst perched on a branch
Starlings are omnivorous. They are opportunistic foragers that visit animal feeding areas, orchards, vineyards, and even areas where open garbage is available.
Invertebrates are the starlings’ preferred food, although they also eat vertebrates like frogs and small lizards from time to time. Plant materials like grain, fruits, berries, and nectar are also essential components of the starling diet, particularly in the colder months when insects become scarce.
For more information on a starlings diet, check out this guide.
Baby starlings are altricial after hatching and rely on their parents to bring them food. Starling parents often make over a hundred daily visits to bring their chicks soft-bodied insects such as caterpillars and grubs.
Starling feeding a Juvenile
Starlings prefer human-altered habitats like rural, agricultural, suburban, and urban areas. Drinking water and cavity nesting sites are essential habitat requirements.
Starlings were introduced to many parts of the world, including the United States. They were first successfully introduced to North America with about 100 birds released in New York City in 1890/91. By 1940, these adaptable birds had spread throughout most of the United States and Canada.
Europe forms the center of the starling’s native range, although their breeding range extends far east to central Asia. In the non-breeding season, they migrate as far south as North Africa.
Starlings tend to live in association with humans. They prefer farmland and areas with short lawn grass where they can forage. Starlings are well known for sleeping in large flocks. The murmurations they form as they flock together are a memorable sight. Large trees, buildings, cliffs, and reedbeds are typical roost sites, although pairs and small groups may roost in cavities.
Winter roosts of starlings can hold up to several million birds.
Starlings are common in suitable habitats and their populations have increased globally, although there have been decreases in the United Kingdom and the USA. Starlings may have declined by about 50% in the United States and 66% in the UK since the 1970s.
You can spot starlings in most towns, cities, and agricultural areas in the United States. They are migratory in the far north but generally resident elsewhere. Starlings can still be seen in Central Park, New York, more than 100 years after their initial introduction.
Starlings are widespread in the United Kingdom but most common in the south. Their numbers swell in the winter when they are joined by birds migrating from northern Europe. Look out for starlings in suburban areas, school fields, parks, and farmlands.
Starling perched on a wooden log
The typical starling lifespan is between 2 and 5 years, although some birds can live for over 20 years. Captive birds have a longer average lifespan.
Starlings have many different predators throughout their lifecycle. Small animals like rats and squirrels can access their nest cavities to prey on the eggs and chicks. Adult birds are most at risk from birds of prey like falcons and hawks, while domestic cats can also catch them as they forage.
Starlings do not enjoy any protection in the United States. They are considered agricultural pests with serious negative economic consequences, a threat to native biodiversity, and a nuisance.
In the United Kingdom, starlings are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981.
Starlings are not an endangered species. According to the IUCN, their global population is increasing, and the species is listed as Least Concern. Starlings have undergone a local decline in the United Kingdom, however.
Adult Starling in flight, with spread wings
Starlings are cavity nesters that often use roofs and other cavities in buildings. They also use natural cavities in trees and nest boxes put out for other bird species. Nest cavities excavated by woodpeckers and birds that burrow in sandbanks are also used.
For more information on starling nesting, check out this article.
European starlings lay 3-6 blueish eggs. Some eggs may appear more greenish or whitish than blue, however. Each egg measures 1.1 to 1.3 inches (2.8-3.3cm) long and 0.8-0.9 inches (2-2.3cm) across.
Starlings do not mate for life. A new pair will form for each breeding season, although males will occasionally mate with two or more females.
Five starling eggs inside the nest of a Starling
Starlings are highly social birds that frequently use aggression in their interactions. Territorial fights can be violent and occasionally even end in death. Starlings are also aggressive around feeders and will fight amongst each other and with other bird species to access limited food sources.
Most starlings in the United States are residents, although many of the birds seen in Canada and the far north of the Lower 48 will move south for the winter. Some American birds also overwinter in Mexico and the Bahamas.
For more information on starling migration, check out this guide.
Starling close up
Starlings are considered a pest in the United States agricultural sector because they cause millions of dollars in damage to fruit crops and consume large amounts of animal feeds. They are also a nuisance in urban and suburban areas because of the mess they leave around roost sites and their habit of nesting in buildings. Starlings frequently outcompete native species for nest sites and food resources.
The origin of the world starling is uncertain, although the scientific name translates directly as common starling.
At their peak, estimates of the number of European starlings in the United States ranged between 150 million and 200 million birds. Today their numbers are estimated at anything from 85 million to 200 million individuals.
Estimates from a 2009 study put the breeding UK starling population at 1.8 million pairs. Starling numbers are believed to have declined by as much as 66% there in the last 50 years.
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