The Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) or European Starling, is native to most of Eurasia, but has been introduced to South Africa, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
In southern and western Europe it is a resident species but northern and eastern populations migrate in winter to these regions, and also further south to areas where it does not breed in Iberia and north Africa.
The Starling lives in a variety of habitats and can be found in any open environment from farmland to salt marsh.
These birds are voracious and will eat almost anything, including farmland invertebrates and berries. Being a highly gregarious species, they form huge flocks in winter, providing a spectacular sight and sound as they descend into evening reed-bed roosts. These flocks often attract birds of prey such as Merlins or Sparrowhawks. Large roosts (exceptionally up to a million birds) can form in city centers and cause a great deal of mess from their droppings.
The 19-22 cm long Common Starling is thought to be one of the most familiar of all birds found in temperate regions. Its shiny black plumage is mottled with white (confusion is only likely in Iberia in winter, when it has to be distinguished from the closely related Spotless Starling, which, as its name implies, has less spotting on its plumage). Adult males are less spotted underneath than adult females. Juveniles are dull brown, and by their first winter resemble adults but are browner especially on the head.
Starlings prefer to walk rather than hop. Their flight is quite strong and direct, appearing triangular-winged and short-tailed. Throughout most of Europe, only the rarer and much paler Bohemian Waxwing shares this flight profile. This is a boisterous bird, and a good mimic, like many of its family. In captivity, Starlings will learn to imitate all types of sounds and speech which has earned them the nickname “Poor-man’s Myna”.
The Common Starling has been adversely affected by intensive agriculture, and in countries like the UK it has been red-listed since its numbers are falling, although it remains a widespread and very common species.
There are two subspecies of the Common Starling:
- The Shetland Starling (S.v. zetlandicus) is slightly larger than the nominate S. v. vulgaris, and is found in Shetland, Fair Isle and the Western Isles.
- The Faroese Starling (S.v. faroeensis) is the largest (European) variant of the starling. The winter adult is black with blue shades, which become green in the summer. This subspecies is only found in the Faroe Islands.
Originally the Starlings of Scotland and England were similar to those of the European mainland, but they died out in Scotland before 1800 and became rare in England. A hundred years later, around 1900, S. v. vulgaris, recolonized from Europe, and since about 1940 this subspecies has spread to Iceland, where there are today thriving colonies in both East and West Iceland. S. v. vulgaris is occasionally seen in the Faroes too.
This adaptable and omnivorous species is considered by many to be a pest in several of the countries to which it has been introduced. The Common Starling is a hole-nesting species and has impacted on native species where it has been introduced because of competition for nest sites.
In Western Australia, the government pays full-time hunters to patrol the border and shoot Starlings as they arrive.
Although there are approximately 200 million starlings in North America, they are all descendants of approximately 60 birds released in Central Park, New York, by Eugene Schieffelin, who headed an acclimatization society trying to introduce to North America every bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.
The descendents of these Starlings have caused problems in North America. Many species are losing nesting sites to the more aggressive Starlings. Starlings will also sometimes drive off native birds, including the bluebirds (Sialia spp.), the Purple Martin (Progne subis), Tree Swallows (Iridoprocne bicolor), and some of the smaller species of woodpecker.
A century after their introduction they have contributed to the decline of all of the above, multiplying rapidly, and can now be found throughout North America and Alaska to the point of overpopulation.
These birds pose enough of a threat to native songbirds that it is in fact perfectly legal to kill Starlings at any time in the U.S. and Canada. It is also a common grassroots practice where possible to set up nest boxes in backyards and wooded areas for the native species to give them a chance, and to destroy Starling nests.