Starlings, black birds that aren’t black

So starlings are not really black in color. They’re not black in classification either. They’re in a different family than the American “black birds” which aren’t all black either. Starlings are in a family of their own, a family with only one species in North America though there are more in Europe and Africa.

The American starling, correctly and fully named the European starling, is an introduced species like the house sparrow. It’s a bird with a chunky body, pointed wings and short stubby tail. It’s found all across America and from the Gulf Coast north into southern Canada.  It’s abundant and recognized, I believe, by everybody who recognizes a robin.

The first known introduction of starlings in North America was in 1890. That year Eugene Scheifflin released 80 of them in New York’s Central Park. The next year Scheifflin released 40 more starlings in Central Park. There were other introductions in other places but as far as the records go there weren’t as many introduced nor were they introduced in as many places as house sparrows. Yet they’ve become as numerous and as wide spread as house sparrows and they’ve done it in less time.

The starling is hardy, capable and prolific, Edward Howe Forbush wrote in “Birds of America.” It is “among the most adaptable of birds,” Forbush wrote. “It has had many centuries of experience in getting its living in populated countries and in cultivated regions in close relationship with man.” All of which explains why it has been so successful, why it increased and spread so rapidly in North America.

I have read no report why Scheifflin wanted starlings in America. Maybe he was an immigrant himself and wanted this common bird of his previous home around his new home. Maybe he read about starlings, that they eat many insects, and thought they would be a beneficial addition to the birds of America. Maybe he was a member of the American Acclimatization Society, people who wanted to introduce every bird mentioned in the writings of Shakespeare. (I don’t know that the starling is mentioned in any of the writings of Shakespeare but it is a common bird in Europe and southern England so I think it probably is.)

Starlings do eat insects.  But they eat fruit too, and grain. A flock of starlings can decimate a vineyard or a cherry orchard.  They don’t eat whole apples but they peck them and damage them. They eat wild berries and are pugnacious enough to keep many other birds, native American birds, from feeding on those berries. A flock of starlings that lands in a corn field will do much damage unless chased away soon after they land. They sometimes crowd bird feeders and consume quantities of seeds.

The biggest complaint about starlings in America, however, is concerned with their nesting. They make their nests in holes and they are, in Forbush’s words, of such a pugnacious nature that “no birds which nest in holes can have any peace at all until all the Starlings are satisfied.”

Nobody in America likes starlings now. I doubt Eugene Scheifflin would like them now if he were alive. But starlings are now an abundant species of the birds of North America. We can chase them away from orchards and corn fields and bird feeders but we can’t exterminate them from the country.

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