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Starling

Common Starling Starling Both Sexes
Black with green and violet iridescence.
Distribution map - when and where you are most likely to see the species.
Sturnus vulgaris
Length: 22 cm  (9")
Wing Span: 37-42 cm  (15-17")
Weight: 75-90 g  (3-3½ oz)
Breeding Pairs: > 1 000 000
Present: All Year
Status: Red
Description   Voice   Feeding   Nesting   Movements   Conservation   My Garden  
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Description

The Starling has the reputation for being one of the noisiest and most gregarious garden birds.

Bill colour in different sexesThe Starling's plumage is mainly blackish with buff edged wing feathers and reddish-brown legs.

In the winter it has white speckles above and below. The sexes are alike though the male has fewer speckles on the rump and wings. The bill is dark grey-brown during the winter.

The speckles disappear through the course of the winter and by the spring the plumage becomes predominantly iridescent with green and purple. The colour of the base of its quite long yellow beak is different in males and females - it is pink for girls and blue for boys.

Juvenile Starlings have grey-brown plumage with large white speckles on the underparts and light cream coloured throat, but moult completely in the autumn in to the spotty adult plumage. They have a dark greyish bill.

First winter Starlings look most peculiar and give rise to many queries about strange birds in people's gardens - they are typically grey-brown on the head and back but blackish with white spots below.

In flight, Starlings have pointed, triangular wings and fly fast and direct. When they come in to land they look a little like Harrier aircraft with slightly drooped triangular wings.

An increasingly common vagrant from Eastern Europe is the Rose-coloured Starling. In the summer, the adults have distinctive and unmistakable black and pink plumage - the breast, belly and back being pink. Many visitors, however, are juveniles and these can be easily overlooked as they look similar to juvenile Common Starlings, except that the bill is yellowish, legs are pale pink, and the plumage is a drab pale grey-brown with darker wings.

Voice

Choose from Quicktime and mp3. Song
  Quicktime mp3

Starlings are great at mimicry, with examples including machines, such as telephones and car alarms, and other birds such as curlews and Pied Wagtails. Consequently, it's difficult to know what their song is other than a medley of squeaks, clicks and whistles.

Male Starlings can be heard singing throughout the year except when they are moulting in July and August.

Feeding

Starlings seem to feed on just about anything: insects, worms, snails, berries, fruit, scraps, suet. However, they feed only invertebrates - not "junk" food - to their young.

Their beak is used to probe the ground and is powerful enough to be opened to part the ground and reach food that is buried, they can also swivel their eyes forward to look along the length of their bill to the area they are probing.

They are often found with Lapwings in wetland areas, where they feed on the food that the Lapwings have disturbed - this is called commensal feeding.

Nesting

The male builds the nest from grass in a hole in a wall, tree or building, but the female lines it with feathers, wool and moss. The male may decorate the nest with leaves and petals in order to deter parasites and improve his chances of attracting a mate.

The eggs are pale light blue, smooth and glossy, and about 30 mm by 21 mm. The male and female take turns incubating the eggs, and both adults feed the young. The female will sometimes remove an egg from a neighbouring Starlings' nests and lay one of her own in its place so as to give her offspring a better chance of surviving.

Starlings will use medium-sized nest boxes with a hole about 45 mm diameter.

Breeding Data
Breeding Starts Number of Clutches Number of Eggs Incubation (days) Fledge (days)
mid-April 1-2 4-9 12-15 20-22

Movements

Juveniles disperse after becoming independent and roam woodlands and the countryside in large flocks. In the autumn, many birds from Scandinavia, Finland and Poland cross the North Sea to winter in Britain.

In the wintertime, both resident and immigrant birds form large roosts, gathering in buildings, trees or reed beds. The roosts are often several thousand birds' strong, but those that gather in reed beds, such as on the Somerset Levels, can comprise a few million birds. As the day draws to a close, the Starlings return to the roost and before settling down for the night the increasingly large flock darkens the skies as it swirls around like a swarm of insects, making this one of Nature's greatest spectacles.

Conservation

Starling populations have declined seriously (by over 70%) in recent times and are on the Red List of birds of high conservation concern. There are several causes of this decline: changes in farming practices, changes in grassland management, loss of invertebrate food through the use of pesticides, fewer nesting sites in urban areas owing to household improvements and poorer survival rates among young birds.

My Garden

Graph of garden visits.

Starlings seem to have an insatiable appetite and will eat just about anything from anywhere - except starling proof feeders - and throw much of it about while they are at it! Further, they feed in flocks and so several birds are usually feeding in this lively manner, which is a sight to behold.

When the young have left their nest, usually by the end of May, seeing both parents dashing back and forth with food for the gaping mouths of up to four juveniles is common. The juveniles are very inquisitive and are always drawn to the pond, where they inevitably find a way in through the netting.

In the winter, the starlings roost at night either in the city centre or in woodlands. Between 9.00 AM and 10.00 AM, a murmuration of starlings will descend on our suburban gardens looking for food and then again just before dusk, when they are usually also seen bathing and can quickly empty the bird bath of water through their furious splashing.

During the summer and early autumn we rarely see any Starlings as they are probably in woodland and farmland areas. Their numbers peak in the winter when migrants (up to 30 million birds from northern Europe) add to the numbers and they search for food in the suburbs, and in the spring when they are feeding juveniles. The migrant birds usually have duller bills.

Over the years fewer starlings have been visiting the garden; a possible explanation is that food is abundant elsewhere, such as in the city centre.

Further Reading

"The Starling", Shire Natural History (details)


Last revision: 01 Jul 2010
Copyright © David Gains 1999-2014.
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