In the world of birds, not all are ‘equal under the law’. As a ‘Schedule C’ species, for example, the European Starling can be hunted anywhere at any time in BC, without a hunting license, because it is not native to North America. A much more powerful species introduced starlings to this continent many decades ago.
The story is that the European Starling (sternus vulgaris) was brought to America by a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts who wanted to be able to see all the birds ever mentioned in the works of the bard. To realise their dream, in the 1890s they set free 60-100 European Starlings in New York’s Central Park. The starlings multiplied to the point where there are now over 200 million on this continent. Today, they are generally considered a nuisance species in North America for several reasons: they took over the nest cavities of Purple Martins and other native species; they travel in large flocks whose droppings can be problematic in cities (but can be great fertiliser, in the right amount); they’ve been known to disrupt air travel; and they’re aggressive at feeders. The US government killed 1.7 million of them in 2008.
Although starlings eat caterpillars and moths, in June of this year a starling family at our place pretty much ignored the caterpillars currently feasting in our garden in favour of suet. They chased off almost any other bird that got there first. But I do not consider them pests; they’re just being starlings. (And really, I could have taken the suet down!)
In reality, the fear that starlings would disrupt indigenous bird species proved to be unfounded. A 2003 study found that of 28 native species, only sapsuckers had been adversely affected by starlings in North America. And in parts of northern Europe and Great Britain, populations have plummeted, due to habitat loss, to the point where starlings are on the ‘red list’ of threatened birds.
Named for their place of origin and their short, pointed wings (apparently reminiscent of stars when the bird is in flight) European starlings are about the size of a blackbird and have short tails and long slender yellow beaks. From a distance they always look black but their plumage actually changes colour depending on the season. Although they don’t molt in the usual way, they go through ‘wear molt’, growing new white-tipped feathers in the autumn, which makes them look brown with white spots at that time. By spring, however, the white tips wear away, and by summer the starling’s plumage is a striking iridescent purplish-green colour.
While lovely to look at individually, it’s the behaviour of starlings in flocks that is a real stunner. Last year two young British women out canoeing on the River Shannon happened upon a murmuration of starlings and videotaped the phenomenon. If you haven’t yet seen the video, you can watch it at http://vimeo.com/31158841. I have to admit that even though I’d seen videos of starlings preparing to roost, and been amazed at the sight, I was so completely astounded by “A Murmuration” that I checked it out at Snopes. The video is real.
Scientists do not yet fully understand murmuration. According to Brandon Keim, of Wired Science (www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/06/starling-physics/) “the closest fit to equations describing starling flock patterns come from the literature of ‘criticality,’ of crystal formations and avalanches – systems poised on the brink, capable of near-instantaneous transformation”. Keim explains that in a murmuration of starlings each bird’s movement is influenced by every other bird, whether the size of the flock is thirty or a million: every individual seems to be connected to the same network. Exactly how starlings process and act on information so quickly, with virtually no lag time, remains a burning question.
Isn’t it ironic? A ‘Schedule C’ bird, one that is unprotected by international, federal, and provincial laws, one that can be hunted at will, is one that provides us with one of the greatest shows on earth – and one of nature’s most awesome mysteries.
Sharon is the author of ‘Up Close & Personal: Confessions of a Backyard Birder’ and the Gabriola Bird Blog (gabriolabirdblog.blogspot.com).
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