COLUMN: The sounds of starlings usher in fall

-A A +A
By Jeneen Wiche

The other evening I was sitting outside under a tree babysitting our hens. We have only been letting them out in the evening under supervision until we can get a handle on some fox problems (we are working on it). As I sat and read, a sense of calm came over me and I was surprised to realize that it was triggered by a little flock of nasty starlings. Starlings start to flock up this time of the year and I guess there was just some sort of Pavlovian response that said, yes, fall is just around the corner, the starlings say so.
The surprising thing about starlings is that they are everywhere yet not from here. It’s another story of one good intention going bad. Apparently back in 1890, in honor of a Shakespeare festival in New York City’s Central Park, 60 European starlings were released. The following year another 40 were released and today the bird is one of the most numerous species in North America.
Most species that adapt to city life seem to do well in North America. The starlings settled in and started raising their families under the eaves of the American History Museum; then they spread from town to town dropping down in flocks to feed on grubs in our suburban lawns. They made it from Central Park to Southern California in about 70 years.
Have you really ever looked closely at a starling? They are quite pretty, almost like an iridescent fiber-optic decoration; this is their summer costume. This time of the year, however, they are a bit dull, but still interesting enough. They grow new white-tipped feathers in the fall, which make them look spotted.
It’s funny, really, what qualities help to define a bird as a nuisance. One, alone, could be appreciated but they never arrive alone. These highly social birds usually flock in the hundreds. That’s why they get bad press. I hate when they land in the side yard or on the roof (where we collect our water) because of some sort of perceived threat that comes with numbers and the poop they leave behind. Images of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” flash in my head.
The reality is that starlings predominately eat insects and soft fruit, so they could be considered beneficial if they eat Japanese beetle grubs from the lawn, right? They are good at aerating our lawns as they push their beaks into the ground to expose their meal, right? On the other hand, they can strip a cherry orchard in one sitting, or poop all over the driveway, or make you nervous with all their chattering.
Starlings are relatives of the myna bird known for its ability to imitate other birds and humans. Mynas can be taught to talk, even. Starlings mostly chatter among themselves during the day as they move in flocks and at night when they roost in trees. Their roosting sites en mass can make for some seriously messy mornings-after. This is the No. 1 reason why we do not have any bamboo at the farm because large clusters of bamboo are a favorite starling roost.
At last count participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count have counted on average about 14,000 starlings in Indiana and over 12,000 in Kentucky. It is estimated that there are 200 million across the North American continent.
By December, the starlings will really be flocking. It has only just begun so I suppose we should enjoy their soft chatter before the winter masses become a cacophony of poopy birds.