Common starling

Sturnus vulgaris Linnaeus, 1758

Order: Passeriformes

Family: Sturnidae

New Zealand status: Introduced

Conservation status: Introduced and Naturalised

Other names: starling, European starling

Geographical variation: New Zealand birds are assigned to the subspecies vulgaris

Common starling. Adult male singing. South Auckland, August 2014. Image © Marie-Louise Myburgh by Marie-Louise Myburgh

Common starling. Adult male singing. South Auckland, August 2014. Image © Marie-Louise Myburgh by Marie-Louise Myburgh

Starlings from Europe were introduced for insect control to North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and are still spreading at 22 km/year in Argentina. They have iridescent purple and green feathers tipped with white spots, but appear black at a distance. Large flocks roost communally at traditional sites, spreading out to pasture and urban feeding grounds each day. One of the commonest garden birds, starlings are easily recognised by their noisy, hyperactive behaviour. They are resident throughout New Zealand on open country, including most offshore islands.

Identification

Starlings are compact, with short tails, and appear smaller than thrushes or blackbirds although of similar weight. Their feathers have white spots which wear off, leaving a dark iridescent breeding plumage. Wing and tail feathers are blackish, edged with pale brown. Males' eyes are dark; females have a pale brown edge to the iris. The sex and age (as first-year or older) can be told from the length of iridescence on the throat hackle feathers. Juveniles leaving the nest are pale greyish brown, and join in flocks of 20-100. Feeding flocks progress in a rolling fashion as birds in the rear overtake the leaders. Starlings probe with the bill shut, then open it to look into the hole formed. Their eyes, placed far forward in the skull, give binocular vision. Their flight is strong and direct, and evening aggregations of thousands wheeling in unison are spectacular, especially when falcon attacks cause waves of cohesion.

Voice: shrill whistles, song with interspersed clicks and gurgles, and a penetrating scream when handled. Starlings can imitate other sounds (e.g. police sirens, telephones, voices) with uncanny accuracy, and incorporate calls and song phrases from other bird species in their song.

Similar species: there are no similar species in New Zealand, where the only other member of the same family is the common myna. Juvenile starlings are greyish-brown, paler under the chin, and have been mistaken for thrushes, cuckoos, and even waders; but their shape, eye position and behaviour are characteristic.

Distribution and Habitat

Starlings occur throughout New Zealand, from sea level to 1500 m altitude, in all open country, on the coast, and in towns. They are absent from alpine areas and native forest, although they may nest at forest edges. Starlings are resident on the Kermadec, Snares, Antipodes, Auckland and Campbell Islands, and are vagrant to the Bounty Islands. Their natural distribution is in the palaearctic, from the United Kingdom east to Lake Baikal. Starlings were introduced to eastern USA (1890) and spread west and north to Canada and Alaska (1952), and south to Mexico (1953). They were also introduced to Australia (1857), New Zealand (1862), South Africa (1898), and Argentina (1987), and spread east to Japan (1969).

Population

Common starlings increased dramatically soon after their introduction to New Zealand. For example, 4 in Napier became “hundreds of thousands” within 11 years. Numbers then declined and stabilised, but there was a marked decrease following the widespread use of DDT from the 1950s until it was banned in 1968. New Zealand starlings still accumulate more DDT than in any other country, but probably not to lethal levels, and they remain one of our commonest birds. European populations have declined by half in the past 30 years.

Ecological and economic impacts

Starlings, introduced to control caterpillar plagues, were apparently successful. Their use in grass grub control has been bypassed by chemicals, but may become important in an organic future; some farmers encourage them with nest-boxes (millions are in use in Russia). Damage to farm animal feed lots, cereal crops, and fruit may be locally severe. They remove ticks from sheep and cattle; but could spread the bacterial and viral diseases ticks carry. Pest control operators list about 24 diseases carried by starlings, although "the evidence is largely indirect and circumstantial." Their nests have caused at least one death by blocking chimneys, and they have similarly caused fires in aircraft, and hundreds of fires in tractors and other farm machinery.

Starling flocks are significant in the 400 bird strikes per year reported in New Zealand. Nests under house eaves are noisy, smelly, may attract rodents, and are often infested with fleas and mites. Communal roosts on islands become a source of weeds such as boxthorn, and may spread diseases like avian pox to bird reserves; roosts in towns are a public nuisance, with corrosive droppings. Competition for nest boxes has been identified as a potential problem at some restoration sites, with starlings using nest boxes placed for black robins, Forbes' parakeets and yellow-crowned parakeets on Rangatira, Mangere and Mana Islands. However, an American study found the effects of starlings on populations of 27 cavity-nesting birds to be practically non-existent, and none of the New Zealand studies have demonstrated that the native birds were limited by nest site competition.

Breeding

Starlings nest in cavities: in hollow trees, dead tree-fern trunks, under the eaves of houses, in letter boxes, crevices in cliffs and burrows. Big cavities may be filled with up to a cubic meter of material. Bird boxes are readily used. The nest is usually made of dry grass lined with finer material, but anything available is welcome. They excavate sites in clay banks or roadside cuttings (recorded only in New Zealand). Some nest in open sites, e.g. ponga crowns or dense trees. Starlings often nest colonially; males defend 1-2 m from the nest, and may control several sites and females. Breeding is synchronised, with most eggs laid within 7 days of the median laying date in September-October. Unlike starlings in Europe, the start of breeding is not correlated with latitude. Replacement clutches and late starters lay in November, and successful early nesters may have a second brood in early December. Clutch size averages 4-5 (1-9), but some (10%) clutches are enlarged by dumping or two females sharing a nest. Incubation period 12 days, fledging 20-24 days. Many chicks do not survive to fledge. Males incubate in the mornings, and both parents feed the young until 1-2 weeks after fledging.

Behaviour and ecology

Although starlings depend on humans for access to crops, pasture, and buildings to nest in, they are difficult to approach. Much behaviour is social, as they feed, travel and roost in large flocks (in Europe numbering millions), and squabble over food, nests, and mates. Nests are visited morning and evening for most of the year. Breeding males sing with throat hackles raised, waving their wings. They lead females to the nest, carrying green leaves. At dusk they fly up to 30 km to a central roost, in trees or shrubs, often on an island or the centre of a city. These roosts are used throughout the year except by nesting females.

Food

The main diet is pasture invertebrates, including earthworms, caterpillars, beetles and their larvae, and spiders. Starlings take grain from hen runs, and readily take food scraps in urban areas. Soft fruit (apples, pears, cherries, grapes) may be damaged. Cicadas are caught on the wing, and starlings also take nectar from flowers, and so (as a result) they are often seen with orange flax pollen on their foreheads.

Weblinks

http://aulaenred.ibercaja.es/wp-content/uploads/416_StarlingSvulgaris.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Starling

References

Bull, P.C.; Flux, J.E.C. 2000. Breeding dates and productivity of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in northern, central, and southern New Zealand. Notornis 53: 208-214.

Evans, L.E.; Ardia,D.R.; Flux, J.E.C. 2009. Breeding synchrony through social stimulation in a spatially segregated population of European starlings. Animal Behaviour 78: 671-675.

Feare, C. 1984. The starling. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Flux, J.E.C.; Flux, M.M. 1981. Population dynamics and age structure of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 4: 65-72.

Flux, J.E.C.; Flux, M.M. 1992. Nature red in claw: how and why starlings kill each other. Notornis 39: 293-300.

Flux, J.E.C.; Flux, M.M. 2015. The fertility clinic: a bird's-eye view of our future. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 42: 284-289.

Flux, J.E.C.; Thompson, C.F. 1995. Distribution of parental effort between nestlings of European starlings: runting and the spoilt-brat strategy. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 22: 331-338.

Heather, B.D.; Robertson, H.A. 1996. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Viking, Auckland.

Higgins,P.J.; Peter, J.M.; Cowling, S.J. (eds.) 2006. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 7, boatbill to starlings. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Long, J.L. 1981. Introduced birds of the world: the worldwide history, distribution and influence of birds introduced to new environments. Reed, Sydney.

Recommended citation

Flux, J.E.C.  2013 [updated 2017]. Common starling. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz

Common starling

Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun

Common starling

Social structure
monogamous
Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Nest description
Cavity site, dry grass and finer lining may include feathers.
Clutch size (mean)
4-5
Clutch size (min)
1
Clutch size (max)
9
Mean egg dimensions (length)
30.00 mm
Mean egg dimensions (width)
21.00 mm
Egg colour
Uniform pale blue
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Interval between eggs in a clutch
24 hours
Incubation behaviour
shared
Incubation length (mean)
11-13 days
Incubation length (min)
11days
Incubation length (max)
13days
Nestling type
altricial
Nestling period (mean)
22-23 days
Nestling period (min)
20 days
Nestling period (max)
25days
Age at fledging (mean)
23 days
Age at independence (mean)
30 days
Age at first breeding (typical)
1-2 years
Age at first breeding (min)
1years
Maximum longevity
14 years
Maximum dispersal
30 km