Starlings Arrive in North America

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The European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), a bird reviled by some and beloved of others, is ubiquitous in North America, but is not native to the continent. The North American population of 200 million constitutes a third of the world's population[1] but descends entirely from a population of some 100 birds that arrived in 1890.


Starling Identification & Characteristics

Starling plumage, plate from May Thacher Cook, The Spread of the European Starling in North America (to 1928) (see Sources).

The U.S. Forest Service provides[2] this thumbnail portrait of the starling:

The starling is a sturdily-built bird with pointed wings and a short, square tail. It forages on the ground and prefers to walk, rather than hop. The plumage is glossy black with green, purple, blue, and bronze iridescence. After molting in the fall, the feathers are tipped in buff or white, giving a spotty appearance. These spots gradually wear away during winter and spring, probably as birds enter and leave nest holes. As the feather tips are lost the plumage becomes increasingly glossy and strikingly iridescent. The sexes are generally similar although the female is slightly duller. In the breeding season the base of the male’s bill is a steely blue color while the bill of the female has a fleshy-pink base.

At close range the sexes can also be distinguished by the color of the eye. The male’s eye is brown; the female’s has a pale ring in the iris. They are noisy birds, with a nonmelodious song consisting of whistles, clicks, rattles, squeaks, and screeches. They can also incorporate sounds that they learn from their surroundings, and can mimic the songs of other birds. [US Forest Service]

The starling also has a noteworthy anatomical[3] feature in its

... jaw muscles that work "backward." Instead of using most of their power to clamp the bill shut, these muscles use it to spring the bill open. Thus the bill functions not just to grip prey but also to pry apart obscuring plants. The closed bill is inserted between blades of grass in thick turf or other cover, and then sprung open to expose hidden prey. As the bill opens, the eyes move forward toward each other, permitting binocular vision. This readily observed foraging technique enables the starling to detect not only active prey but also dormant or stationary prey, as well.

It has been observed since ancient Roman times that the vocalizations of starlings sound like murmured human speech. This is reflected in the collective noun that refers to a group of the birds as "a murmuration of starlings".[4]

Shakespeare, Schieffelin, & Starlings

Indeed, starlings can be taught to mimic human speech. Shakespeare acknowledged this fact in his play "Henry IV, Part I". The character Hotspur

... is contemplating driving King Henry nuts by having a starling repeat the name of Hotspur’s brother-in-law Mortimer, whom Henry refuses to ransom out of prisoner status. “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer', ” Hotspur whines.[5]

The "American Acclimatization Society" was founded in 1871 in New York City to assimilate "such foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting."[6] The chairman of the organization was Eugene Schieffelin,[7] Bronx resident, pharmacist, noted eccentric, and devoted fan of Shakespeare. It was Schieffelin's idea that the society should make it a goal to introduce to America every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. Thanks to Hotspur's concern for his brother-in-law Mortimer, the starling was marked for introduction by the Society.

There had been previous attempts to introduce the starling to North America,

...but no records are at hand to show how many or for what purpose. The earliest of these seems to have been at West Chester, Pa., previous to 1850, and the next at Cincinnati, Ohio, in the winter of 1872-73, but nothing further was heard of these or of several subsequent importations. In May, 1889, 20 pairs were released in Portland, Oreg., but the colony did not thrive. A pair or two were still to be found nesting there in 1901, but have not been heard of since about that time.[8]

Schieffelin's attempt was more successful. In April, 1890, 80 birds were released by the Society in Central Park, New York City. In March of the following year an additional 80 birds were released.[9] A period of about 10 years was required for the starling to become established around New York City; after that their spread was rapid. By 1928 they had penetrated as far west as the Mississippi, reaching California by 1942.[10] By the mid 1950s there were more than 50 million coast to coast; today they number near 200 million.[11]


The starling was particularly well adapted to life in North America, and its success in spreading quickly across the continent has led many to consider it a pest.

Roosting in hordes of up to a million, starlings can devour vast stores of seed and fruit, offsetting whatever benefit they confer by eating insects. In a single day, a cloud of omnivorous starlings can gobble up 20 tons of potatoes.[12]

Each year, starlings cause an estimated $800 million in damages to agricultural crops.[13]

Distaste for the species has led to their denunciation as responsible for displacing any number of other species of native birds, but the guilt appears to be largely displaced:

And starlings actually appear to be innocent in the case of the missing bluebirds. The feather friends at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology contend on their Web site that “a study in 2003 found few actual effects on populations of 27 native species. Only sapsuckers showed declines because of starlings, and other species appeared to be holding their own against the invaders.”[14].

Although it was originally created to outlaw interstate traffic in birds and other animals illegally killed in their state of origin, the Lacey Act of 1900 (introduced by Iowa congressman John Lacey) prohibits such introductions,[15] and no foreign wild birds or animals can legally be brought into the country except under permit issued by the Secretary of Agriculture.[16]


  1. ^ Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, 1988.
  2. ^ U.S. Forest Service, 2009.
  3. ^ Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, 1988.
  4. ^ J.N.Shaumeyer, "A Murmuration", Bearcastle Blog, 15 January 2009.
  5. ^ Mirsky, 2008.
  6. ^ Thacker, 2001.
  7. ^ New York Times, 1877.
  8. ^  p. 2, May Thacher Cook, 1928.
  9. ^  p. 3, May Thacher Cook, 1928. There is confusion among sources about the exact dates of the release, and whether it was even done in two events. Some claim that all the birds were released in 1890, some of those state 16 March 1890 as the date, while others recognize that the birds were released in two events. There is also some variation in claims about the total number of birds released, but most agree on some number near 100. Here we use the earliest authoritative reference we have located.
  10. ^ Gup, 1990.
  11. ^ Mirsky, 2008.
  12. ^ Gup, 1990.
  13. ^, 2009.
  14. ^ Mirsky, 2008.
  15. ^ U.S. Department of the Interior, 1999.
  16. ^  p. 1, May Thacher Cook, 1928.


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