Time for another #BeakoftheWeek species post!
The common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is one of four species in the genus Sturnus, although this group is complex, with opinions differing on which species truly belong to this genus. It also has many subspecies, up to 13 according to some sources.
The common starling appears dull and uninteresting at a distance, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Although its plumage is black, it has a metallic sheen of greens and purples throughout its feathers. Being gregarious birds, they spend most of their time in flocks. It is the species that famously forms ‘murmurations’ before roosting for the night, creating breath-taking spectacles around the UK in autumn and winter time. In the evening, before dusk, is the best time to see them performing this aerial display. It is not known exactly why they form murmurations, but one suggestion is that it gives safety in numbers, as predators such as peregrine falcons find it difficult to target one bird in amongst thousands of others. Another reason is that this helps them share information with each other, such as good feeding sites.
Although starlings are omnivorous, they tend to feed on invertebrates more than fruits, seeds, and grains, and are commonly seen feeding on the ground in pasture or grassy areas. They have three main ways of feeding: probing, hawking, and lunging. ‘Probing’ is the most common behaviour, which consists of probing the ground with their beaks randomly until invertebrates are found. This also involves bill gaping, where they open their beaks while in the soil to widen the hole. Less common is ‘hawking’, when the birds catch insects from the air, and ‘lunging’, when the bird strikes forward to catch moving prey on the ground. It is common to see “roller-feeding” in starlings, where the birds at the back of the flock fly to the front continuously, making use of the better foraging opportunities ahead.
To attract a mate, males must find a suitable cavity in which to construct a nest. To make the nest appealing to a female, the male must decorate it with fresh greenery or flowers. Starlings are both monogamous and polygamous, depending on the situation, but reproductive success is greater when a male remains monogamous. Females lay four to six eggs, pale blue in colour, which both the male and female incubate for around 13 days. Intraspecific brood parasitism does sometimes occur, with unpaired females laying eggs in the nest of another pair, sometimes removing one of the hosts’ eggs to maintain the same number and avoid detection. Nestlings remain in the nest for around three weeks, and are fed for one to two weeks after fledging. A mating pair can raise as many as three broods in a season, relining and reusing the same nest, but two broods is more common.
Starlings are very noisy birds, having fast and complex songs including much variation and mimicry. Males can be heard singing most of the year, whereas females’ song is supressed in the breeding season. Starlings are able to mimic parts of other species’ songs, and incorporate them into their own repertoire.
Starlings have an impressive global distribution, spanning five of the seven continents. The species is native to Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa, but has since spread due to successful introduction attempts. They were introduced in Australia in an attempt to control insect pests affecting crops, but have since been deemed pests themselves. Similarly, they were introduced in North America, and now are thought to have a population size of 150 million.
Starlings are common and widespread across the UK, but don’t let their impressive global distribution fool you, they are listed as having ‘Red Status’ here. This is due to their population size falling by 80% in recent years, declining most notably in urban areas. The reason for this decline is thought to be a shortage of food and nesting sites, a lack of permanent pasture, and increased use of chemicals and pesticides in farming. Until land management practices and farming techniques improve, the species could continue to decline, along with many others.
BirdLife International. 2016. Species factsheet: Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris. Accessed 19/01/2016.
RSPB. 2016. Starling. Accessed 19/01/2016.
Winkler, H., Christie, D.A. & Kirwan, G.M. 2016. Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) 2016. Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/species/common-starling-sturnus-vulgaris on 20/01/2016.
BirdLife International. 2015. Sturnus vulgaris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed 20/01/2016.
Images (from top to bottom):
Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) taken by Pierre Selim is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Common starlings in field (Sturnus vulgaris) taken by Henry Clark is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
BirdLife International and NatureServe. 2014. Bird Species Distribution Maps of the World. 2015. Sturnus vulgaris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-3.
Mikael Litsgård, XC290451. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/290451.