The European starling, also known as the Common starling, is a small bird from the Sturnidae family. Starlings are famed for their murmurations, which are stunning acrobatic flying displays. Though male and female starlings look similar, you can tell them apart if you know what to look for. This is a guide to identifying female European starlings.
A popular way to identify female European starlings is from their bills. Both male and female starlings bills are predominantly yellow, but male bills have a blue-ish base, whereas the female's bill base is pinkish.
Male starlings also have shinier, oilier plumage, though female plumage is spottier at certain times of the year, and they have more white wingtips. Both the males and females are of similar size.
Adult male starlings also have longer throat feathers, whereas female throat feathers are much less pronounced. Female starlings also have lighter brown irises, whereas male irises are much darker. One study found that some 97% of starlings can be sexed on the basis of iris and pupil colour alone.
Female starlings have many other unique characteristics, so read on to learn more about female European starlings!
A female starling perched on a branch - see the pinkish bill
Male and female starlings are similar in most ways, and they’re pretty much the same size (females are around 4 to 5mm shorter).
Despite the similarities, there are some telling differences between male and female European starlings:
Starlings have oily or glossy plumage. Males are glossier than females, and their plumage can appear slightly darker under certain light. The underwing feathers are also darker in males and lighter in females. Adult male European starlings have a more heavily saturated overall look, whereas females are duller, particularly in the case of young females.
Females do, however, generally look more spotty and have pale to white tips on their body feathers. Females are spottier in the breeding season, making them easier to tell apart from the less-spotty males.
Close up of a male European starling - note the bluish colouring at the base of the bill
Males have much longer throat feathers (also called hackle feathers).
While they’re around three to four times longer than female throat feathers, they can be pretty hard to spot as they blend in with the rest of the neck plumage.
Males have longer throat feathers as they’re used to signal sexual health. Female throat feathers might typically measure around 5mm or so, whereas male throat feathers can measure 20mm or more.
A female common starling standing on the ground
Female starlings have light lemon yellow beaks with pink bases, whereas males have yellow bills with blue bases.
It’s pretty much blue for a boy and pink for a girl! A pronounced difference in bill colour is not always present, so this isn’t the most reliable way to tell males and females apart.
Male starlings have darker irises than females. While males have a uniformly dark-brown iris, females have a lighter coloured ring around their outer edge. This is an excellent way to tell the birds apart if you can get a good view of the iris.
Close up of a female common starling
Both male and female starlings are aggressive birds that form large, noisy flocks of thousands of birds. These are boisterous, highly gregarious birds that spend much of their time together.
Some pairs of European starlings choose to be seasonally monogamous, meaning that they stick together for the breeding season before finding new mates the following year. However, starling males are frequently polygamous and attempt to mate with a second female shortly after the first clutch of eggs is laid.
Single male starlings unusually start to build nests in the winter. As a result, fights over nesting sites are fierce and can result in the death of a male.
Male starlings use these nests to advertise their mating credentials to females, who fly by the nest as the male sings to attract their attention. After a brief courtship ritual and once paired, both the male and female work together to quickly finish the nest, which usually only takes a couple of days.
The female typically initiates copulation and often sings to attract the male to instruct him that she’s ready. Males are usually protective of their mates and try to safeguard them from polygamous males, which continues until around 3 to 5 days after the eggs hatch.
Once they lay their clutch, female starlings become highly protective and territorial. Males can mate with another female while the female takes over brooding duties, though the male will usually equally assist all females to their young.
A nesting pair of starlings. Female on the left and male on the right
Starlings are vocal birds with a vast repertoire of songs that develop throughout life. The male sings throughout the year, particularly during the breeding season. The female is usually reasonably quiet outside the breeding season and autumn/fall.
Females have specific copulation calls, and communication between males and females is often ongoing during brooding and raising young. Starlings are excellent at vocal mimicry and often impersonate other nearby birds, humans or even machinery and other environmental sounds.
Males learn their songs from other males, whereas females predominantly learn from females. Both the male and female know the primary whistled song and the warbling songs, which they start practising when they’re just three months old.
During the breeding season, the male is likely to be seen advertising himself to females with his song. His throat feathers may be slightly puffed up too - which often helps positively identify him as a male. Females starlings are not shy or inconspicuous, however, and are often seen fighting with both males and other females.
Close up portrait of a female starling
Female starlings incubate the eggs for around 70% of the time.
The female typically incubates at night. If the male breeds with another female, they may rotate between the two nests.
Some starling nests also have helpers in the form of unpaired males or females, or possibly last year’s immature young.
Starlings often sleep in their mated pairs. Sometimes, two females may roost with one male in his nest cavity. In the winter, starlings roost in their hundreds or thousands - this is when you’re most likely to see a murmuration.
Despite some males being polygamous in the breeding season, male starlings usually assist with incubation, brooding, and feeding the chicks.
If the female dies or deserts, males occasionally take up all parental duties. Overall, though, the female takes primary responsibility for the young, especially when the male is parenting multiple broods.
If a female raises two broods, the second brood usually receives significantly less male attention. When males are polygamous, fewer birds fledge successfully, and nestling mortality rates are high. First broods are nearly always more successful than the second - starling survival rates are higher when the male chooses to be seasonally monogamous.
Female starling perched on an old pine branch
Female starlings sometimes have no choice but to attempt to raise the young alone. In this situation, nestling survival rates are low - the young birds are much more likely to survive when the male remains monogamous.
Starlings are both monogamous and polygamous. At the start of the breeding season, the male will attract a female and guard her for 3 to 5 days after the eggs hatch. If it’s still suitably early in the season, he will attempt to mate with a second female. A pair of starlings can raise up to three broods in one breeding season.
In this situation, the male usually prioritises the first nest, but can also share duties between both nests. The second nest is usually less successful than the first, with a higher nestling mortality rate.
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