Cross Timbers Wildlife News - Jim Dillard
January 2003

Jim Dillard is a Wildlife Biologist for Texas Parks & Wildlife. He writes from Mineral Wells TX.

Cross Timbers Mynabirds

The Statue of Liberty has long welcomed "your tired, your hungry, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free" and Europe has contributed her fair share of emigrants. Even a few of our fine feathered friends made the trip to set up housekeeping in the good old U-S-of-A. Thanks to eccentric socialite Eugene Schieffelin and his determination to introduce into New York City's Central Park all the birds mentioned by old Billy Shakespeare in his writings, the European starling (in Henry IV) is now one of the most numerous and widely distributed birds in North America.

On March 16, 1890, Schieffelin released 60 European starlings there and another 40 the next year. Ironically, within a few weeks, a pair successfully nested under the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History and Pandora's Box was opened. Within 60 years they were on the west coast. Their phenomenal spread throughout North America has resulted in an estimated population of 200,000,000 which is another good example of "it's not nice to mess with Mother Nature". Today, they occur in biblical proportions in many areas and have worn out their welcome - and it was "breath free!", not "breed free!".

The European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, is a member of the Family Sturnidae which includes the Asian myna birds, known for their ability to mimic sound and the human voice. Although a European starling's typical song is a variety of squeaks, wheezes, rattles, whines or whistles, they can mimic other birds or sounds. I was in an airplane hanger once, talking to a biologist friend of mine, when we heard a clear and distinct "bob-white" coming from somewhere in the building. He said he'd been hearing a quail in the hanger for some time but could never see it. Sitting high on a beam was a European starling making quail music to its heart's content. Mozart had a pet starling that may have influenced some of his musical compositions, and when it died, mourners sang hymns and listened to graveside poems written for it. One pet starling was known to say "DEE-fence" whenever sports programs came on the television. Another reportedly could sing the first line of "Dixie" but mixed in notes from "The Star Spangled Banner".

Starlings are adaptable feeders, preferring to waddle about on the ground looking for a wide variety of insects, larvae, worms, spiders, snails and other invertebrates. Unlike the jaw muscles of most bird species, those of starlings work backwards for prying open the bill rather than clamping it shut. They'll use their bill to expose hidden prey in the turf by jabbing it in the ground to pry open a hole. When they do, their eyes roll forward in the head giving them up-close focused binocular vision to spot potential food whether it's moving or not. In flight, they're adept at catching flying insects. Berries, fruits and seeds compliment their diet.

One of the rubs against starlings is their aggressive habit of taking over natural cavities such as woodpecker holes or other nooks and crannies used by native songbird species for nesting. Starlings impact large numbers of cavity nesting birds each year such as bluebirds, purple martins, tree swallows, woodpeckers and others. They'll assert their first-come, first-serve squatter's rights or just takeover and evict other birds. Nest boxes intended for other species often become "home-sweet-home" for a pair of starlings. The male starts the nest and the female finishes it, usually after picking out his choice of nesting materials and replacing it with her choice, as any self-respecting female starling would do. Selected green vegetation is added to the nest to help fumigate it and repel parasites. She'll lay 4-7 greenish-white to bluish-white unmarked eggs that'll hatch with 12-14 days of incubation. Young are then fed by both parents for another 21 days or so. Fecal sacs of the young are meticulously removed from the nest for sanitation. Two clutches per year is common - so, you do the math.

In breeding plumage, the feathers are iridescent green and purple and the bill is bright yellow. In the fall, the bill turns dark and body feathers molt, becoming tipped in white and buff until winter when they begin to wear down and just look black. Unlike blackbirds, their tail feathers are short, and in flight, starlings have a triangular delta-winged shape. Spectacular compact flying formations of thousands of starlings often appear to move in a synchronized choreographed aerial ballet.

Starlings have fallen out of favor with a lot of folks these days. Just ask anyone living over in Fort Worth or Dallas where starlings concentrate in humongous winter roosts along with grackles and their other blackbird buddies. Park your car under downtown landscape trees and you'll soon be visiting a car wash. Whatever you do, don't look up. Even in rural areas, aggregations of starlings and their other "birds-in-black" friends can devour copious amounts of livestock feed in short order. Damage to fruit producing trees is also a problem. On the flip side, they do eat a lot of harmful insects and larvae that are considered agricultural pests.

The European starling is one of three nonnative bird species found in Texas, along with English sparrows and feral rock doves (pigeons), classified as unprotected birds, primarily due to their many un-redeeming qualities. Like coyotes and cockroaches, they're probably here to stay. I'd almost guarantee you'd find some nesting somewhere on the Statue of Liberty today. Perhaps we should take a clue from the French who consider them a gourmet delicacy - split, wrap in bacon, roast in a hot oven, serve on toast (yummy!). Add a little Texas thick'nen gravy and I might just give it a try.

Until next time - I'll see you down the road and God Bless America!

Cross Timbers Chapter, Texas Master Naturalist, Inc.   9601 Fossil Ridge Rd.   Fort Worth TX 76135

Site design & content Cross Timbers Chapter, Texas Master Naturalist, Inc.  All rights reserved.  Contact Webmaster.