Common Name: Starling, European Starling, Common Starling – The vocal, gregarious songbird extended across broad swaths of Eurasia even as the Indo-European language groups were differentiating. The Old English stærlinc was probably derived from stearn, a type of tern. The similarity to the Old German stara and the Prussian starnite are indicative of a pan-European origin without any meaning beyond that of the well known bird.
Scientific Name: Sturnus vulgaris – The Latin name for the starling is sturnus with similar Indo-European origins. Vulgaris means “common’ in Latin, as the epithet vulgar suggests.
Potpourri: The European or common starling was intentionally introduced to North America in the nineteenth century as part of a cultural movement that sought to ameliorate habitats from both an aesthetic and a practical perspective. This practice extended to medicinal plants and herbs like coltsfoot and plantain but was expressly focused on birds. The starling, noted for its ravenous consumption of insects, was considered a boon to farmers in the extirpation of crop pests prior to the adaptation of chemical pesticides in the middle of the last century. It was also considered a cultural icon in Europe for its prodigious and varied song, frequently mimicking other birds, and, as pets, human speech. What’s not to like? The starling has thrived to the extent that it has become a problem on a scale comparable to pigeons in the park and Canada geese on the golf course. Bird as pest is a contradiction in terms. While society bemoans the loss of birds to glass buildings and wind farms, urban jurisdictions must manage huge starling flocks with acres of droppings and rural agronomists must account for purloined produce. It is a complicated story that begins in New York City’s Central Park.
The hackneyed version of starling invasion blames a wealthy patrician from Manhattan who had made his money in drugs, presumably legal, named Eugene Schieffelin. As an amateur ornithologist, he became a member of the American Acclimatization Society with the stated goal of introducing every one of the 600 avian species included in the copious works of William Shakespeare. To that end, Schieffelin released approximately 100 starlings in Central Park between 1890 and 1891. This initial introduction incontrovertibly resulted in the 200 million starlings flocking from coast to coast, wreaking havoc to harvests and despoiling city streets. Accounts typically include a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry IV in which a bothersome rebel named Hotspur proposes to disturb the king’s sleep by teaching a starling to say the name “Mortimer,” an earl Henry distrusted (Henry IV, Part I, act 1, scene 3).  The account of Schiefflin’s starlings is usually trundled out to lambast the arrogance and ignorance of the powerful elite of the past in instigating environmental disasters of the present.
Histories that fail to account for the culture and knowledge of the time and place then and there are sophistry. The Schieffelin account is true so far as the act of starling release but widely misses the mark as to motivation and expectation. The exchange of flora and fauna between Eurasia and the Americas had been going on for over four hundred years by 1890, sometimes intentional and beneficial but frequently happenstance and harmful. Horses, wheat, and cattle were introduced by colonists for work, transport and food. Influenza, smallpox, and diphtheria stealthily disembarked decimating native populations. In return, turkeys, potatoes, and tobacco offered new and exotic tastes and temptations to the Old World. Syphilis was purportedly carried back to Spain by Columbus’s sailors and spread throughout Europe as the “French Disease.”  By the nineteenth century, global integration had run its course with largely benign results.
The acclimatization movement arose in France in the 1850’s as an idea proposed by the naturalist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. The introduction of new species from one continent to another in order to better understand the adaptation of new species to new environments was one of its primary enterprises. The American Acclimatization Society was organized in New York in the 1860s with a more nuanced goal of improving beauty and diversity with an emphasis on birds. In 1877, a Mr. Conklin of the Central Park Museum reported at a meeting of the society that the commissioners of Central Park had released 50 pairs of English sparrows and that they had “multiplied amazingly.” They also freed some starlings because these birds were “useful to the farmer and contributed to the beauty of the groves and fields.”  This was just one of numerous attempts on both coasts to acclimatize the starling to the New World.
Problems with species introduced to a new region absent the checks and balances of native predation and other environmental limits first became manifest in the late nineteenth century. In 1886, Clinton Merriam, the first Chief of the USDA Division of Ornithology and Mammalogy warned of the damage to grain, seed, and vegetable crops caused by the importation of harmful birds (notably English sparrows) and mammals (notably European rabbits). Ten years later, Theodore Parker, the Assistant Chief of the USDA Biological Survey advocated for federal legislation, because “the animals and birds which have thus far become most troublesome when introduced into foreign lands are nearly all natives of the Old World,” specifically calling out the European starling for crowding out benign insectivorous native birds in addition to eating farmed crops as food. The Lacey Act of 1900 was the first major Federal legislation concerning wildlife management, named for its originator, a representative of the farmers of Iowa. Introducing the term “injurious” as a type of animal behavior, its intent was to “regulate the introduction of American or foreign birds or animals in localities where they have not heretofore existed.”  It is still in force to this day; invasive has supplanted injurious as the pejorative of choice.
What about Shakespeare? Schieffelin’s contribution to starling scatology would have escaped notice altogether had he not been named as perpetrator by Frank Chapman, a preeminent American ornithologist who initiated Audubon Magazine and the annual Christmas bird count. During his long career at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, he came to know Schieffelin who would periodically stop by to check on the status of starlings. In the seminal 1895 Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, Chapman effected Schiefflin’s responsibility for their introduction. Fifty years later, the nature writer Edwin Teal published an account stating unequivocally that Schlieffen’s “… curious hobby was the introduction into America of all the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.” This assertion was apparently an extrapolation of the development of a garden in Central Park where plants associated with the bard were planted … starting in 1916, ten years after Schlieffen’s death.  The attribution of starling introduction to Henry IV is surely poppycock.
There is an aesthetic aspect of starlings that has been overshadowed by the cacophony of their massive flocks―they are mimics nonpareil. According to the diary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he purchased a pet starling on 27 May 1784, annotating the entry with the musical transcription of its whistled song. Three years later he led a funeral procession of dirge-singing mourners and eulogized his avian companion’s death at its gravesite with poesy: “A little fool lies here whom I held dear, a starling in the prime of his brief time, not naughty quite, but gay and bright, and under all his brag, a foolish wag.” The starling’s tune as recorded for posterity by Mozart was nearly identical to the final movement of his Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453 he composed at about the same time as he adopted the starling. This factual yet eerie account can only have occurred if the starling had learned the tune from Mozart who truly admired its musicality and therefore mourned its death. In all probability, Mozart strolled about Vienna whistling his compositions and wandered into a pet shop, perhaps more than once. The starling therein can only have learned the tune from him, earning the eternal sobriquet as “Mozart’s Starling.” Circumstantial evidence of Mozart’s reputation for whistling tunes as they came to his head and his fondness for birdsong … he had a canary as a youth … support this thesis.
The vocalization skills of the starling were well known to the Romans and certainly also to the Greeks whose culture they absorbed. The naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundus known as Pliny the Elder wrote that starlings “practiced diligently and spoke new phrases every day, in still longer sentences” in both Latin and Greek. Certainly Shakespeare and his sixteenth century audience were well aware of the tonal dexterity of the mimicking starling that could be taught to invoke the name “Mortimer”―the jest would otherwise fall flat. In a recent quasi-scientific experiment with a group of starlings sharing a house with a small group of bird researchers, their innate audio habits were manifest: various birds repeated phrases including “we’ll see you soon,” “give me a kiss,” and fragments of the Star-Spangled Banner. Mozart composed a piece called A Musical Joke (K 522) shortly after the death of his pet. It is described as “awkward, unproportioned, and illogical” that goes on interminably to end in “a comical deep pizzicato (plucking) note.” This would also be a good description for the starling’s repertoire of screeches, clicks, and whistles from which it concocts a verisimilitude of human speech. Was this Mozart’s epitaph to his pet starling? It is more than a possibility, as he is otherwise known for melodic virtuosity. 
The starling of Mozart’s affection and Schlieffen’s obsession morphed into the scurrilous scavenger of the twenty-first century by being a too successful species. In 1915 the USDA launched a comprehensive survey of the effects of the starling in North America that included surveys of farmers and the examination of the stomach contents of thousands of birds. Based on the findings that starlings ate more pests and consumed fewer crops than native birds, the researchers concluded that “the starling possesses an almost unlimited capacity for good.” After over a century of profligacy, the limits of starling goodness have become manifest. According to an updated USDA study, starlings consume or otherwise despoil $800 million worth of agricultural crops every year, spread infectious diseases to both humans and farm animals that result in an additional $800 million, and crowd native birds out of nesting sites. A database of starling migration paths was recommended to track nuisance concentrations to allow for targeting them with “improved baits and baiting strategies,” clearly a euphemism for poisoning. Starlicide is a USDA approved product to control starlings and blackbirds even though it is “toxic to other types of birds in differing amounts. But this is supposedly all right because the birds experience a “slow, nonviolent death.”  This policy begs a research project to assess its efficacy. Adding poisons to the environment to control highly adaptable birds that will evolve to avoid or tolerate it cannot be good public policy.
A flock of starlings is called a murmuration, not so unusual as bird collectives go―convocations of eagles and parliaments of owls among them. The name is an onomatopoeia for the sound made by careening masses of starlings maneuvering in giant formations with wings flapping and muted calls creating low, indistinct noises. These individual starling murmurs combine to create a murmuration that can comprise well over half a million birds. Rising in the late afternoon, murmurations pulsate in amorphous blobs of organized chaos that has long intrigued ornithologists. The prevalent theory is that it is driven by instinctive group behavior motivated by safety in numbers to attract outliers to join so all can more safely settle on a place to roost for the night. Using multiple cameras from different angles to track individual birds and combining them in 3D computer models, it emerges that there is no leader, each bird synchronizing with its seven nearest neighbors. The undulating bulges of birds correlate to perturbations attributed to the “selfish herd effect” as birds on the edges move inward to the safety of the center. After about an hour, they descend en masse. 
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the starling (along with the myna in the Starling family Sturnidae) is among the world’s 100 worst invasive species based on its “serious impacts on biological diversity and/or human activities.”  Rome, Italy is the epicenter of roosting starlings that have been coming south from all over Europe to overwinter in its balmy Mediterranean climate since the 1920s. Spending days feasting in groves of olive trees and farmland of the surrounding countryside, starlings congregate in the late afternoon to meet-up for the nightly roost. Once situated, they relieve themselves of excrement that coats whatever lies below with a slick mass of olive-oily slime. Street closures must be invoked to prevent motor bike crashes. Parked cars are encased with an implacable sarcophagus of starling scat. Attempts to stem the avian tide ranging from outright poisoning to the introduction of predatory raptors like hawks have failed due to the adaptability of starlings, the reason for their ubiquity. The only effective strategy has been relocation. Rome’s environmental department devised a technique employing a recording of a starling screeching in distress (induced in a laboratory) that is broadcast with amplified bullhorns to disrupt the roost. Generally, after the third day of being chased away, starlings opt for a less contested and congested roost as bird-man compromise. 
The starling’s overwhelming success as an individual species is a serendipitous result of natural selection. Other than proliferation and vocalization, they are undistinguished as just one of about 6,500 species of the order Passeriformes that make up about half of all species of the class Aves. Usually called song birds, they are classified in taxonomy according to the configuration of their feet. Three claws forward and one back promote grasping and perching on tree branches―they may best be thought of as perching birds that sing.  Like almost all other birds, starlings are monogamous, sharing parental duties in nest building, egg incubating, and chick feeding (up to 20 times per hour). In fact, there is some evidence that the male and female birds coordinate these activities so that they share equally.  Depending on latitude, they produce up to two clutches of six eggs every year with a success rate of up to 80 percent. While this would nominally result in a Malthusian progression of an additional ten birds per couple every year, only about 20 percent of the chicks survive to reproductive age. Two chicks per couple annually is still enough for a population explosion. Starlings are omnivores, with a daily consumption of about 15 grams of mostly insect animal food and 30 grams of plant food. Foraging in locations that range from orchards and feed lots to urban landfills, they can readily provision their nests, typically tucked away in nooks of man-made structures. 
Starlings have figured out how to make a living in a world otherwise overrun by humans, taking advantage of the terraforming that defines our habitats. While they have become invasive, one might offer the same assessment of Homo sapiens. It should come as no surprise that the class Aves produces individual species that manage to overcome the most challenging environments with unsurpassed survival skills; the penguins of Antarctica and the goony birds of Midway Island among many others. Avian survival of the meteor impact darkness of the Cretaceous-Paleocene Extinction 66 million years ago as the only representatives of the dinosaurs established a genetic heritage of resilience. According to recent DNA evidence, the starling family emerged about 6 million years ago during a less dramatic but equally challenging global climate transition. Originating in Asia, they spread during at about the same time as C3 plants were being replaced by C4 plants that characterize a drying climate as a part of the global carbon cycle. These plants, like corn or maize, sedges, and sugar cane, are more efficient in conditions with high levels of carbon dioxide. It is likely that the peculiar starling jaw muscles first evolved to meet the C4 food challenge. Unlike most birds with strong muscles to close the bill, starlings have the opposite with protractor muscles to open the bill. This provides the ability and propensity to penetrate narrow slits and prying them open expose the plant or animal food otherwise protected. The clever and adapted starlings radiated westward, becoming the European starling. 
Cities are the anthropomorphic monuments of civilization. The natural world is buried beneath megatons of concrete interwoven with tunnels for trains, sewers, water, and electricity. The plants and animals that were displaced are banished to waste areas if they survive at all. In the grim and gray concrete canyons, there is no life other than planted trees, manicured lawns, and an occasional park to remind the humans that abide therein that nature really does exist. The few animals like birds and squirrels that have learned to live with the hubris of human occupation are, if anything, a blessing. Aside from providing a reminder that we are not really alone, they offer the beneficent function of clearing the streets of the uneaten bread crumbs sourced from food trucks and tossed aside as a measure of disdain for the earth we live on. The stolid starlings do not let it go to waste, following their exceptional bird survival skills.
1. Mirsky, S. “Antigravity: Call of the Reviled.” Scientific American, June 2008
2. Smithsonian History of the World Map by Map, Random House, London, 2018, pp 158-159
3. “American Acclimatization Society” New York Times, 15 November 1877.
4. Jewell S.“A century of injurious wildlife listing under the Lacey Act: a history”. Management of Biological Invasions Volume 11 Issue 3 pp 356–371. https://www.reabic.net/journals/mbi/2020/3/MBI_2020_Jewell.pdf
5. Miller, J. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Environmental Humanities 1 November 2021. Volume 13 Number 2 pp 301–322. Shakespeare’s Starlings | Environmental Humanities | Duke University Press (dukeupress.edu)
6. West, M. and King, A. “Mozart’s Starling” American Scientist. March–April 1990. Volume 78 Number 2 pp 106–114.
7. Linz, G. et al “European starlings: a review of an invasive species with far-reaching impacts”. Managing Vertebrate Invasive Species. USDA Paper 24 pp 378–386.
8. Langen, T. “Why do flocks of birds swirl in the sky?” Washington Post, 12 April 2022.
10. Harlan, C. and Pitrelli, S. “A stunning spectacle – and a huge mess.” Washington Post, 15 January 2023
11. Alderfer, J. ed Complete Birds of North America, National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, 2006, pp 502-504.
12. Enns, J. “Paying attention but not coordinating: parental care in European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris” Animal Behavior 2022. USDA Agricultural Publication.
13. Linz, Ibid.
14. Zuccon, D. et al. “Phylogenetic relationships among Palearctic – Oriental starlings and mynas” Zoologica Scripta 10 April 2008 Volume 37 No. 5 pp 469–481.
3 thoughts on “Starling”
One of your best new ones yet, William, and on the first of April, too. A minor suggestion: Make it Edwin Way Teale.
Paul – Always appreciate the feedback; I amended the permanent page on HNB to include the middle name.