Saturday, 10 December 2016

Bird of the week - Starling

Of all our garden birds starlings perhaps show the most dramatic seasonal variation in appearance.  Just now they are in their smart winter suits with a little white arrowhead at the tip of each feather.  Although at first glance they appear mostly black and white they have purple and green iridescence on the head and body feathers when the light is right. In winter starlings' beaks are black but in summer they turn yellow, with blue at the base for males and pink for females.

Males and females look alike in the winter but it is the males who do most of the the singing.  At least that's what they call it.  To our ears it is more of a warbling, rasping, rattling sound but I guess the females like it or they wouldn't do it. Starlings are also superb mimics and specialise in incorporating other birds' songs into their own.  With Denise & Phil recently I was listening to starlings as they returned to their roost and we could make out pheasant, curlew and blackbird amongst several others.

British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) data show starling numbers have been in decline for 50 years, probably due mainly to changes in farming practice, and the starling is on the red list.  Numbers in Europe, particularly Northern Europe, are also falling.

BTO Garden BirdWatch data for 20 years confirm the decline

although it hasn't perhaps been as marked up here in the North East.

BTO Bird Atlas maps show starlings are still widespread 

but this is the change in relative abundance.  Perhaps they've all moved to Ireland?

One other place starlings are doing well is
 North America.  I was surprised to read that the European starling is the most numerous bird over there.  It was deliberately introduced in New York City in the late 19th century and has since spread across most of the continent.  Starlings are not universally popular, to say the least (see here), and compete for nest sites with native hole-nesting birds such as bluebirds and woodpeckers.

I have twice been over to Gretna in south-west Scotland to see the winter starling murmuration (in 2014 and 2009). There are similar but smaller shows in the North East so I'll probably stay closer to home this winter.

The starling's scientific name is Sturnus vulgaris, meaning common starling.  In French it is √Čtourneau sansonnet.  In German it is Star (the German for star is Stern).

Thomas Bewick engraved the starling for his A History of British Birds (1797).

He wrote a precise description of a murmuration.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart bought a starling in 1784 and taught it to sing the opening theme of the third movement of his piano concerto no 17 in G.  He kept it as a pet for three years and wrote a poem in its honour when it died.  You can read the story here.

You can listen to several recordings of starlings here (check S-Z).  Listen to Sir David Attenborough's BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on starling here.


  1. The "I hate starlings" article and comments are hilarious! Easy to rile people on line. Mind there's an egregious error in the article - brook trout are native to N America, it's brown trout that were introduced! So there.

  2. Although at first glance they seem plain, actually they have a pretty pattern and shine to them. Didn't know about their beak changing colour.