Saturday, 7 September 2013

Week 27: Starling (‘Sturnus vulgaris’)

The starling was @SpeciesofUK from 30th June to 6th July, 2013.

The UK's starling, Sturnus vulgaris, is also known as the Common Starling or European Starling.[1] It is one of 114 starling species worldwide, all members of the Sturnidae family.[2]

The Common Starling
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © David A. Hofmann]

The starling has spread right around the world, both naturally and by man’s intervention.

The starling’s natural range extends across Europe and Asia. Within this range there are around a dozen subspecies. It has also been introduced to America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.[3]

The starling was introduced to the USA in 1890-91 when one hundred individuals were released in New York's Central Park. Of these, fifteen pairs survived and established the species in North America.[4]

The starling is a widespread species in the UK, with the exception of the highest parts of the Scottish Highlands. It's most abundant in southern England and least common in upland moors.[5]

Unfortunately, starlings have recently suffered from a dramatic population crash in the UK. They're still pretty common in gardens, but numbers have dropped by a catastrophic 92% in woodlands.[6]

They are noisy little creatures.

The starling is famous for its extraordinary range of vocalisations. It warbles, chuckles, whistles, snarls creaks, chips, chirrups and gurgles![7]

The only time of the year when starlings are not making a racket is when they are moulting.[8]

Most famously, the starling is also a very accomplished mimic. They often copy the sounds of other birds, animals and even mechanical sounds.[9]

In the USA, starlings are occasionally kept as pets. In close proximity to humans, they learn to mimic all sorts of things. Here, a ringtone:

The BBC website also has a fantastic selection of starling videos and sound files if you want more!

Starlings are not just noisy, they are garish and brash all round.

The starling stands slightly smaller than a blackbird. It has a short tail, a pointed head and triangular wings which it uses for a fast flight.[10]

This is a marvellous slo-mo video of a starling taking off in flight:

The starling has a very distinctive 'confident' gait when it walks or runs on the ground.[11]

From a distance the starling looks a dull black but up close they are glossy with an incredible sheen of purples and greens.[12]

An Iridescent Starling
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Sergey Yeliseev]

The summer plumage is made up of iridescent green glossed feathers covering the back, nape, and breast. The wings occasionally have a veneer of green and purple.[13]

Summer Plumage
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © ajmatthehiddenhouse]
In winter the starling has a cream-coloured 'flecking' against a black background. This happens when the tips of the feathers have eroded away.[14] The number of starlings in the UK swells in the winter as continental starlings come here for an excursion.[15]

Winter Plumage
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © phenolog]

Overall male and female starlings look similar. But males have elongated feathers over breast and a bluish spot at the base of their bill.[16]

Male Starling with bluish base to bill
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © K Schneider]

Starlings are at their most spectacular in their flocks…

The starling is very gregarious. They feed, roost and migrate in flocks. Large roosts occur in plantations, reed beds and cities.[17]

When starlings flock before they roost, it's called a 'murmuration.' It's an astonishing sight. In fact, it’s not too strong to say that a starling murmuration is THE wildlife spectacle in the UK.

Now used to describe the aerial display, 'murmuration' originally referred to the sound of wings rippling through the starling flock.[18]

A Starling Murmuration
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © ad551]

A Small Starling Murmuration on the Coast
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © SteveMcN]

Sorry, I can't resist, here's another murmuration video!

Starling courtship is also impressive, if somewhat comic.

The male starling uses a "wing-waving" action to attract females. They also sing in or near their nests, which they have decorated to impress her.[19]

Here is a video of a male starling's mating call: 

When the female starling is fertile, her mate will keep close tabs on his competitors and follow the female everywhere she goes.[20]

In April, starlings can be seen with tufts of grass/feathers, building their nests in all sorts of natural or man-made cavities.[21]

They are omnivorous. Starlings take a wide variety of invertebrates as well as seeds and fruit.[22]

The fledgling starling is completely different to the adult. It’s a light brown.

Fledgling Starling
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © C.A. Mullhaupt]

By end of May, juvenile starlings can be seen everywhere chasing their parents around in hope of a feed. They are noticeably less cautious than blackbirds of the same age.[23]

Juvenile starlings slowly gain the plumage of their parents. Early on, the fine gloss of the adults is not as noticeable, the bill is brownish-black, and they have more rounded tips at their wings.[24]

Juvenile Starling
[Source: Flickr Creative Commons © Edwyn Anderton]

Strange but true…

The Shetland Starling, Sturnus vulgaris zetlandicus, is a subspecies of the starling. They have a darker juvenile plumage and a broader bill-base.[25]

[15] Derwent May, Nature Notes.
[21] Derwent May, Nature Notes.
[23] Derwent May, Nature Notes.

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