Of the over 120 species in the Sturnidae family, the starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is probably the best known. Starlings are common birds of town and country and can be seen just about anywhere in the United Kingdom, except perhaps for the coldest parts of Scotland. Anyone who has observed this species in either a wild or urban setting will have immediately sensed a level of alertness and intelligence that is particular to these beautiful birds.
Starlings are relatively long-lived birds for their size, having been recorded to live for over twenty years. The average lifespan in the wild is usually between two and five years. These intelligent and adaptable little birds use various strategies like flocking, communal roosting, and migration to increase their survival rate.
Unfortunately, starling numbers have declined sharply in Europe, possibly as a result of changing land-use practices. On a global scale, however, these birds have been very successful, colonizing much of North America and various parts of the Southern hemisphere. This article covers the lifespan of the starling and the factors that affect their survival.
On average, starlings usually live between two and five years
Banding records indicate that starlings can live for over two decades in the wild. The average lifespan is much shorter, however, and probably stands between two and five years. Read on to learn more about the starling's lifespan in the wild and in captivity.
In the wild, starlings typically have an average lifespan that ranges anywhere from 2 to 5 years.
The oldest recorded wild starling was found in Denmark and lived for 22 years and 11 months. An individual from Germany came in a close second with a lifespan of 21 years and 4 months. The oldest individuals recorded in the United Kingdom and the United States were was just shy of, and just over 17 years old respectively.
The great majority of wild starlings will not live this long of course. The mortality rate for juveniles is about 60%, which is higher than the average adult mortality rate.
European Starling foraging for food on the grass
Starlings that are kept in captivity are likely to live longer than their wild counterparts if provided with good care. One individual which was kept as a pet in Canada is reported to have lived for 19 years.
Starlings can succumb to a variety of causes of death. Read on to learn more about the most common causes of mortality in starlings.
A number of bacterial and viral infections have been recorded in the common starling. These include well-known infections like:
Starlings are also often hosts to a wide variety of internal and external parasites including ticks, lice, and mites.
Degradation of natural habits has in fact benefited the starling and resulted in the success of the species. In Britain and Europe, however, the population is now showing a decreasing trend. Part of the decline in British starling numbers may be the result of limited access to food due to changes in land use and farming practices.
Starling perched on a branch during the winter
Environmental factors are also known to contribute to starling mortality. Very cold and wet weather puts birds under stress while very high temperatures in the nest can be dangerous for eggs and chicks.
A variety of predators will feed on starlings. These birds are vulnerable to predation in all stages of their lifecycle.
Starlings were released and have since become naturalized in many parts of the world, including the United States, Australia, and South Africa. In these areas, they are frequently seen as pests and persecuted with limited success.
The birds are controlled on a domestic level, i.e. nuisance birds nesting in homes and buildings, and on a much larger scale in the agricultural sector. Various control methods have been used, including pesticides, trapping, and shooting.
Most adult starlings breed every year between March and July. Pairs that start early will often have a second clutch before the end of the season. A typical starling clutch consists of four to six eggs.
The eggs are incubated for a period of 11-15 days, and the hatchlings remain in the nest for a further 21 to 23 days after hatching. Female starlings often breed in their first year, but this is less common in males.
A starling feeding a chick in the nest
Starlings are remarkably intelligent and alert animals. Nevertheless, these wary birds fall victim to a number of mammalian and bird predators in both the countryside and urban environments.
Starling eggs and nestlings are frequently preyed upon by both grey and red squirrels, rats, and stoats. Adult starlings are eaten by a variety of predators such as:
A ringed individual recovered in Denmark was probably the oldest recorded starling. This bird lived to the grand old age of 22 years and 11 months.
Starling singing from a tree stump
Starlings usually feed every day to maintain body heat and energy. The amount of time they are able to survive without food will depend primarily on the ambient air temperatures and how much body fat they have stored.
It has been suggested that starlings can survive for one to two days without feeding in warm weather conditions. In very cold weather, however, their metabolic rate is much higher and the birds will likely perish sooner.
A 1965 study showed that roosting behaviour also has a very important effect on the survival time of starlings. It was estimated that a single bird could survive only a single day without food at 2-4°C while birds perched in a group could survive for as long as three days.
Close up of a Starling on the ground
Starlings occur in both resident and migratory populations. Starlings that occur in areas where winters are particularly harsh survive by migrating to milder climates. In the UK for example, starlings are present throughout the year, but their numbers increase in the autumn when huge flocks arrive from northern Europe. Interestingly, similar patterns have emerged in North America where the birds have naturalised.
The adaptability of these birds is equally important in ensuring their winter survival. Birds use the energy from food to maintain their body heat, so a steady supply of food is especially important in winter. Starlings are able to utilize food sources like scraps and grain that ordinarily would not occur in the wild at this time of the year.
Starlings roost in large flocks, often travelling considerable distances to return to the roosting site each night. This behaviour not only ensures safety in numbers but also helps to keep the birds warm. Flocking starlings fly in fantastic formations known as murmurations which are important for avoiding predation from aerial hunters like falcons.
Common Starling perched on a snowy log
In the United Kingdom, starlings are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside act. They are not endangered but are thought to have declined by as much as 66% since the 1970s.
On a global scale, starlings are considered highly successful, being one of the most numerous species on the planet. They are assessed by the IUCN as Least Concern.
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