Sunday, February 13, 2011

Notes on the European Starling in a northern Ontario town

[click on images to enlarge]
Over the last month we've grown accustomed to the diverse flock of Common and Hoary Redpolls in the yard. I've also kept an eye on overwintering gulls - a few hundred Herring with several Glaucous - and from week-to-week there's not much change. With so little news, it's a good time to write a few words about an even more constant feature of our local bird fauna - the European Starling.

I was prompted to do so by Verlyn Klinkenborg's lyrical column in today's New York Times in which he shares some thoughts about the starlings on his rural property somewhere in New England. Like Mr. Klinkenborg, I find myself watching the starlings even when when our feeders are festooned with less common and more brightly coloured winter finches.

Mr. Klinkenborg also notes that their reputation for out-competing native species for nest sites in tree cavities - "they have de-nested billions of birds" - isn't matched by their behaviour in his yard where "they fight all the time, yet only with one another."

We see the same thing - our starlings seem perfectly content in mixed company.

Our winter starling flock has had an oddball in its ranks - a male Brown-headed Cowbird - for several months. Though they are superficially similar black birds, they are not kin. Cowbirds are Icterids, a New World lineage that includes orioles, meadowlarks, grackles and oropendolas. The European Starling is of course a wildly successful transplant from the Old World and is closely related to the mynahs. Another distinction is that Brown-headed Cowbirds almost never overwinter in northern Ontario. This one is in the close company - generally in the midst - of a gang of accepting starlings.

Lots of birds use the suspended suet log. Gray Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees are frequent and all are quick to vacate on the arrival of a woodpecker - even the diminutive Downy. The starlings aren't so fearful and will continue to feed, perhaps warily, only inches from a Pileated Woodpecker.

In addition to suet, the starlings eat pretty much anything we offer - millet, shelled peanuts, sunflower, niger (swallowed by the mouthful if offered in an open container!), cracked corn and all kinds of fruit. During mast years, they readily exploit the abundant native Mountain-ash crop along with American Robins, Common Ravens, American Crows, Gray Jays, Pine Grosbeaks and both waxwings. Perhaps this wide dietary breadth enables the starling to thrive in northern towns where Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows are absent.

Michael Cadman (in Cadman et al., 2007) summarized the history of the European Starling in Ontario. Following their introduction to New York in 1890, they were first found nesting in Ontario in 1922. Their range continued to expand northwards and they were recorded on the first Christmas Bird Counts conducted in Marathon and Thunder Bay in the 1950's (CBC historical data). Presently they are found in most northern Ontario settlements. They have also been observed breeding on a radar installations in northernmost Ontario, on the Hudson Bay coast at Cape Henrietta Maria, some 200 km from the nearest settlement (Cadman 2007).

Historical Christmas Bird Count data also reveal a continuous occupation of the Town of Marathon by European Starlings since at least 1958. Scarcely a day passes when I don't see a at least a few starlings around town, although I've never seen more than 100 or so birds at once. They breed here but I have no idea if we see the same individuals in the summer and winter - the species is partially migratory.

There's a lot more to say about European Starlings and much we have yet to learn. Their vocal mimicry is extraordinary and in certain lights, they are strikingly beautiful.

The final word goes to Mr. Klinkenborg:
It would be nice if starlings came in ones and twos and were more like the cardinal in demeanor. We would see the ornateness of their feathering, which reminds me of the marbled endpapers of well-bound books. I’ve used starling hackle feathers for tying trout flies, and each one is a bit of the night sky with an iridescent galaxy shining near the tip.

  • M. D. Cadman, D. A. Sutherland, G. G. Beck, D. Lepage, and A. R. Couturier, Eds. 2007. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario 2001–2005. Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature, Toronto, Ontario, xxii + 706 pp. [available here]
  • Verlyn Klinkenborg. The Mob at the Feeders. New York Times. 13 February, 2011.
  • Wood Engraving by Eric Fitch Daglish (1892-1966), reproduced here with the kind permission of Stephen Daglish.
  • Photo of winter starling pair taken in Newfoundland, courtesy of Clyde Barrett.
  • Christmas Bird Count data accessed here


  1. They are beautiful birds. Thanks for making me take a second look at them.

  2. This is a great post on the European Starling Michael. They are beautiful birds. Too bad they are so prolific and displace native cavity nesting species.

    I love that shot of the Pileated Woodpecker and the Starling on the suet feeder! Very cool.

  3. What gorgeous pests these birds are. If only their behaviour matched their striking beauty!


  4. Glorifying the starling is just about the worst thing you can do for our native cavity nesting birds. Shame on you for helping them survive the winter!