Introducing starlings a colossal blunder

The starling is not native to North America but to Eurasia.

Their arrival on the continent started when some folk decided they were going to bring to America all of the birds which were mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. So in 1890, about 80 starlings were released in New York City.

From that modest beginning, they have multiplied into millions and millions. They now breed in almost all of the United States, and most of Canada, as far north as the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Ungava.

The introduction of this bird was a huge and costly mistake. Its immense numbers cause untold damage to grain crops and rice, the great flocks play havoc with some of the large airports, and droppings plague many cities with continuous layers of manure.

And perhaps more important, these aggressive birds have nearly done away with many of our native species like bluebirds, martins, and red-headed woodpeckers just to name a few.

Here in Northwestern Ontario, we don’t have the huge numbers which occur farther south but they are here and, in some places, in quite large numbers.

Actually, the starling is not a bad-looking bird. A bit smaller than a robin, it looks like a blackbird with a short, stubby tail. The overall colour is black, with purple and green iridescent parts.

From very early spring to late summer, its beak is bright yellow (different from any other black bird). In the winter, the beak is brownish.

Also in winter, the starling becomes spotted with flecks of white, all of these spots pointing downward.

The starling breeds almost everywhere–woods, park trees, corners of buildings, other birds’ nests, woodpecker holes, and nest boxes. It also has adapted to modern civilization in a really big way.

Lawns are a great place to look for worms and grubs; roadsides are wonderful for insects and small gravel; and farms and gardens are just great for feed grains, small fruits, and seeds.

In all fairness, the starling is really quite beneficial when it is around in smaller numbers. Its diet in the summer is about 90 percent small insects or grubs.

It is only when this bird is in large flocks that it really is a terrible pest. On the bridges over the Harlem River in New York, painters had to use hammers and chisels to get rid of the 18 inches of caked manure on the girders.

Cities have gone to great lengths to try to get rid of this menace of starlings, turning to fake owls and hawks, shooting, noise makers, poisons, and spraying with hot or sticky chemicals. None of these work after the third or fourth time.

Well, this bird can now be classed as a true North American. The first one was seen in Canada, at Niagara, in 1914. Now we have them by the millions. They also have been introduced into Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii.

What damage they have done to those areas, I don’t know.

The starling, Sturnus vulgaris, is living with us for good. He has happily adapted to our modern way of life–big buildings, bridges, cities, and big farms. That pointy yellow beak of his can eat grain, crack seeds, tear open McDonald’s potato bags, and chase other birds away from their nests.

To bring this bird to America was one of the colossal blunders of ecology even though it was committed by kind, well-meaning people.