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European Starling: Identification and Overview

April 2, 2023

The European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is a common and widespread bird species native to Eurasia but introduced to other parts of the world, including North America, Australia, and South Africa. Often misunderstood and even considered a nuisance, these adaptable and resourceful birds have become an integral part of many ecosystems. In this in-depth exploration of the European Starling, we'll examine their size and shape, color patterns, behavior, habitat, fascinating facts, and ecosystem services.

Related: Learn How to ID Your Favorite Birds

How to ID a European Starling

European Starlings are medium-sized, stocky birds with a short tail, triangular wings, and a strong, straight bill [1]. They measure about 8-9 inches (20-23 cm) in length, with a wingspan of 12-17 inches (31-44 cm) and a weight of 2.1-3.4 ounces (60-95 g). Both male and female European Starlings are similar in size and shape, making it difficult to distinguish between the sexes based on appearance alone [1]. However, there are subtle differences in the color and pattern of their plumage, as well as the color of their bills and legs. Juvenile European Starlings are distinguishable from adults by their duller, gray-brown plumage, which gradually becomes more iridescent as they molt into their adult feathers. Young starlings also have a dark bill, which changes color as they mature.

1. Size and Shape

European Starlings are strong fliers and agile on the wing, capable of performing acrobatic maneuvers in flight. They often gather in large, tightly coordinated flocks called murmurations, which can create impressive aerial displays. On the ground, starlings walk or hop with a confident, strutting gait. The European Starling can be confused with other starling species or blackbirds, especially when seen from a distance [1]. However, their unique combination of iridescent plumage, short tail, and triangular wings sets them apart from other birds in their range.

(1) Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

2. Color Pattern

During the breeding season, adult European Starlings have an iridescent, glossy black plumage with green and purple hues. Their feathers are tipped with white spots, giving them a speckled appearance. The bill is yellow in males and females, with the base of the male's bill turning bluish during peak breeding condition. Their legs are reddish-brown. In non-breeding plumage, European Starlings retain their iridescent feathers, but the white spots on their plumage become more prominent and their overall appearance is more subdued. The bill turns dark, and the legs become paler in color. European Starlings undergo a complete molt once a year, usually in late summer or early autumn. During this time, they replace all their feathers, transitioning from their breeding to non-breeding plumage. Molting requires a significant amount of energy and is crucial for maintaining the bird's insulation and flight capabilities.

(4) Feare, C., & Craig, A. (1998). Starlings and Mynas. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA.

While most European Starlings exhibit the typical iridescent black coloration, there are some variations in plumage color among individuals [4]. Some starlings may appear more brown, gray, or even have patches of white feathers. These color variations are likely the result of genetic factors or environmental influences, such as diet and exposure to sunlight. The iridescent plumage of European Starlings is a result of microscopic structures within their feathers that refract and scatter light, producing the shimmering, metallic colors [5]. This structural coloration is not derived from pigments and can change appearance depending on the angle of light and the viewer's perspective.

(5) Doucet, S. M., & Meadows, M. G. (2009). Iridescence: A functional perspective. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, S115-S132. doi:10.1098/rsif.2008.0395.focus

3. Behavior

European Starlings are omnivorous, feeding on a wide variety of food items, including insects, fruits, seeds, and small vertebrates. They are opportunistic foragers, often exploiting human-made food sources such as agricultural crops and livestock feed. Starlings can be seen probing the ground with their bills, searching for invertebrates in soil and leaf litter. European Starlings are highly vocal birds, producing a wide range of calls and songs. Their song consists of a series of whistles, clicks, and warbles, often incorporating mimicry of other bird species and even human-made sounds. Males are particularly vocal during the breeding season, using their songs to attract mates and defend territories.

European Starlings are social birds, often forming large, noisy flocks, especially outside of the breeding season. These flocks can contain thousands of individuals and are known for their impressive murmurations, where the birds fly in coordinated patterns, creating mesmerizing, fluid shapes in the sky. During the breeding season, European Starlings are cavity nesters, selecting natural tree cavities or human-made structures, such as nest boxes or building crevices, for their nests. Males typically choose the nesting site and begin constructing the nest before attempting to attract a female. Once a pair is formed, both the male and female contribute to nest-building, incubation, and feeding of the young.

European Starlings can be aggressive and territorial, particularly during the breeding season when competing for nest sites and resources. Their competitive nature and adaptability have allowed them to thrive in areas where they have been introduced, sometimes leading to negative impacts on native bird populations.

4. Habitat

European Starlings are native to Eurasia, inhabiting a wide range of habitats, including open woodlands, farmlands, grasslands, and urban areas. They are found from northern Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, and from the British Isles to western Russia and Central Asia. European Starlings have been introduced to various parts of the world, including North America, Australia, and South Africa [6]. In these regions, they have adapted to diverse habitats, including urban and suburban settings, agricultural lands, and open woodlands. Their ability to exploit human-made resources and tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions has contributed to their success in these areas.

European Starlings are highly adaptable and can thrive in a wide range of habitats. However, they generally prefer open areas with scattered trees or structures that provide nesting sites and foraging opportunities. They also tend to be associated with human-altered landscapes, such as agricultural fields, parks, and urban environments, where food resources are abundant. Nest sites are a crucial component of European Starling habitat. They require cavities for nesting and will readily use natural tree cavities, as well as human-made structures, such as nest boxes, building crevices, and even traffic lights [1]. In areas where natural nesting sites are limited, starlings may compete aggressively with other cavity-nesting birds for available sites.

European Starlings gather in communal roosts, often in large numbers, during the non-breeding season [1]. Roost sites can include trees, shrubs, buildings, and other structures. These roosts provide protection from predators and allow the birds to exchange information about food resources.

(6) Cabe, P. R. (1993). European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), version 1.0. In A. F. Poole & F. B. Gill (Eds.), The Birds of North America. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. doi:10.2173/bna.48

Related: Black-capped Chickadees: ID and Overview

Video on the European Starling

"We know a lot of factual information about the starling—its size and voice, where it lives, how it breeds and migrates—but what remains a mystery is how it flies in murmurations, or flocks, without colliding. This short film by Jan van IJken was shot in the Netherlands, and it captures the birds gathering at dusk, just about to start their performance. Listen well and you'll be able to hear how this beautiful phenomenon got its name." - ➡ Subscribe:➡ Get More Short Film Showcase:

Facts about the European Starling

European Starlings were first introduced to North America in the late 19th century by a group led by Eugene Schieffelin, who released 60 birds in Central Park, New York City, in 1890 and another 40 in 1891 [6]. Schieffelin's motivation was to introduce all the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare to the United States. Since their introduction, European Starlings have spread across the continent and now number in the millions. European Starlings are skilled mimics, capable of imitating the songs and calls of other bird species, as well as human-made sounds, such as car alarms and telephone rings [1]. This mimicry is thought to play a role in mate attraction and territorial defense, as males with larger repertoires of songs may be more successful in attracting mates.

The introduction of European Starlings to new regions has had negative impacts on some native bird populations, particularly cavity-nesting species [6]. Starlings are aggressive competitors for nest sites and have been known to evict native birds, such as Eastern Bluebirds, Purple Martins, and Red-headed Woodpeckers, from their nests. One of the most fascinating aspects of European Starling behavior is their spectacular murmurations, where thousands of birds gather in tightly coordinated flocks, creating mesmerizing patterns in the sky. These displays are thought to serve several purposes, including predator deterrence and information exchange about food resources. European Starlings can live up to 15 years in the wild, although the average lifespan is much shorter, with many birds succumbing to predation, disease, or other factors within their first year. Their natural predators include birds of prey, such as hawks and owls, as well as mammals, such as raccoons and cats.

Ecosystem Services:

As omnivorous birds that feed on a variety of insects, European Starlings can provide valuable pest control services in agricultural and urban settings[7]. They consume large numbers of insects, including pests such as beetles, caterpillars, and grubs, which can help to reduce the need for chemical pesticides and minimize crop damage. European Starlings also contribute to seed dispersal through their consumption of fruits and seeds. By moving seeds away from the parent plant and depositing them in new locations, starlings can help to promote plant diversity and maintain healthy ecosystems.

As they forage for invertebrates in the soil, European Starlings contribute to nutrient cycling by breaking up the soil and aerating it [1]. This activity can improve soil health and promote the growth of plants, as well as support other invertebrate species that live in the soil. Despite their reputation as an invasive species, European Starlings play an important role in maintaining ecological balance in their introduced range [6]. They provide a food source for predators, such as birds of prey, which helps to maintain stable predator-prey dynamics in the ecosystem. Furthermore, their presence can serve as an indicator of environmental health, as they are sensitive to changes in habitat quality and availability. European Starlings have long been a part of human culture, featuring in the works of famous authors like William Shakespeare, and inspiring people with their remarkable murmurations [1]. As a familiar and easily recognizable bird, they provide opportunities for people to connect with and appreciate the natural world, fostering a greater understanding of the importance of biodiversity and conservation.

In conclusion, the European Starling is a fascinating and adaptable bird species that has successfully colonized new environments and become an integral part of ecosystems around the world. By examining their size and shape, color patterns, behavior, habitat, facts, and ecosystem services, we gain a deeper understanding of the complex interactions between these birds and the ecosystems they inhabit. While they have been known to cause problems in some areas, their ecological roles and contributions should not be overlooked.

(7) Johnson, R. J., & Glahn, J. F. (1994). European Starlings. In S. E. Hygnstrom, R. M. Timm, & G. E. Larson (Eds.), Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage (pp. E87-E96). University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA.

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