Monday, October 25, 2010

The Book of Saturnus

Saturnus vulgaris, The European Starling.

Originally from Europe, this species was introduced to North America in a very special way. Their introduction can be pinpointed not only to a year but also to a person, Eugene Schieffelin. Mr. Schieffelin, a 5th Ave Resident in the late 19th century, reportedly thought "it would be nice to have all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare available for viewing in the park outside his window". So between 1890 and 1891, he had a total of 100 starlings shipped over from Europe. This small population exploded and within half a century, it went from 100 to to than 200 million in the United States. From New York, they have spread all across North-America. Thank you Mr. Schieffelin, now everyone can see the Shakespearean pests from their window whether they like it or not.

Starlings are an aggressive invasive species. They are cavity nesters and will bully their way in. Marie Winn, author of Red-Tails in Love and other great books and articles, tells of one such bullying episodes. The Northern Flicker, a large brownish woodpecker, painstakingly excavates its nest in tree trunks. Mrs. Winn and her fellow Central Park birdwatchers have observed this behavior and also the stalking Starlings, that sit and wait for the nest to be large enough before charging the flickers and laying their eggs in the freshly excavated nesting cavity, leaving the flickers to start again. It's not only the Flickers that suffer from the starlings self entitlement. All native cavity nesting birds must compete with the brutish starlings.

Enough with the accusing, let's get to know them a little better.

Member of the Order of Passeriformes, the European Starling is the type species of its genus Sturnus (meaning its the representative, the species you compare all Sturnus to). During breeding season (spring), its plumage is iridescent black with hints of green and plum, its bill is yellow. In the fall, feathers are tipped with white giving a speckled appearance and the bill is now darker, brownish. The juvenile birds are grey-brown, with a brown bill.

They are ground feeders with a particular technique called open-bill probing in which they prying into the ground by inserting and opening their bill to search for hidden food.

Outside nesting season, they can be seen in large flocks, to say the least. Watch this video (beware of motion sickness).

Take care!


1. Winn, Marie. Red-tails in Love: a Wildlife Drama in Central Park. New York: Random House, 1998
2. European Starling. Field Guide to the Birds of North America -4th Edition. Washington : National Geographic, 2002
3.  European Starling. Wikipedia. Oct.23rd 2010. [Accessed online] Oct.25th 2010.

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