There are over 200 million European Starlings in North America today. They are all descendants of the 100 birds released in New York's Central Park in the early 1890s by a group dedicated to introducing all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's plays into America. The play that featured the starling was Henry IV: "Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer'..." Starlings are very good mimics and were a popular cage bird in Europe. They first appeared in Tennessee in 1921, and by 1970 they had spread to upper Alaska. European Starlings now breed across all of North America and only the Canadian birds migrate south in winter. Starlings became established so easily because they are habitat generalists able to exploit a large variety of habitats, nest sites, and food sources. They will eat almost anything from French fries to an array of invertebrates, small vertebrates, fruits, and seeds. While they do eat some insects that are harmful to crops, starlings are thought to do more harm than good. They steal grain, ravage crops, and out-compete native birds for winter fruits. Regardless of how loud and obnoxious the huge winter flocks can be, their aerial displays performed before roosting are beautiful and impressive.
Description: This stocky, black bird has a short square-tipped tail, a long pointed bill, and walks rather than hops. In flight the wings are short and pointed. The feathers are glossy black tipped in white in winter giving the bird a speckled appearance. These white feather tips wear off by spring leaving a shimmering green-and-purple glossy plumage. The bill is dark in winter and yellow in spring. The male and female look the same; the juvenile (May-August) is a drab gray-brown all over. In the fall molting juveniles may have patches of gray and black.
Weight: 2.7 oz
Voice: The song is a variety of trills, whistles, chatters, and twitters. The European Starling is known to mimic other birds including Eastern Meadowlark, Brown-headed Cowbird, and Eastern Wood-Pewee. They give a variety of calls including a sliding wolf-whistle. Females also sing, but mostly in the fall.
- Blackbirds have slimmer bodies, longer tails, and shorter, thicker bills. No blackbird has a yellow bill.
- Juvenile and female Brown-headed Cowbirds are similar in color to juvenile starlings, but cowbirds have a longer tail, a slimmer body, and a much stouter and shorter bill.
Habitat: Found in a variety of habitats especially near people in agricultural and urban areas.
Diet: Broad diet of many kinds of invertebrates, small vertebrates, fruits, grains, seeds, and garbage.
Nesting and reproduction: European Starlings are cavity nesters and may negatively impact several native birds including woodpeckers, Great Crested Flycatchers, Tree Swallows, Eastern Bluebirds, and Purple Martins by competing with them for nest sites (see fun facts below). Starlings in Tennessee appear to only occasionally produce a second brood.
Clutch Size: 3 to 7 eggs with 4 to 5 eggs most common.
Incubation: Both adults incubate the eggs for 12 days.
Fledging: Both adults feed the chicks, which fledge in 21 to 23 days. Unlike many birds, the fledglings are fully feathered and fly well when they leave the nest. They are independent of the adults in three to four days and form flocks with other juveniles.
Nest: Inside the cavity adults build a nest of grass, fresh green vegetation, or pine needles and may also include feathers, paper, plastic, and string. Nests can be located 2 to 60 feet above ground, but average of 10 to 25 feet.
Status in Tennessee: The European Starling is an abundant permanent resident of all developed portions of the state. During winter, migrant starlings join resident starlings and blackbirds and form large nocturnal roosts that can number in the hundreds of thousands. The population appears to be stable in Tennessee, but slightly decreasing rangewide. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not protect European Starlings.
Dynamic map of European Starling eBird observations in Tennessee
- The first starlings recorded in Tennessee were found in December 1921 in both Nashville and Bluff City, Sullivan Co. The first nests were reported in 1925 in Bristol and Knoxville. By 1935 starlings were nesting in Memphis. They are now the second most abundant bird species reported on Tennessee Breeding Bird Survey routes.
- The muscles of the European Starling jaw work "backward." Instead of using most of their power to clamp the bill shut, the muscles spring the bill open. This allows the bird to insert the closed bill into the ground or into an object and then pry it open. The eyes have the ability to then move forward giving it binocular vision.
- Starlings are fierce competitors for nest cavities, and frequently expel native bird species. They are believed to be responsible for a decline in native cavity-nesting bird populations, but a study in 2003 found few actual effects on populations of 27 native birds. Only sapsuckers showed declines because of starlings, and other species appeared to be holding their own against the invaders.
- Typically, cavity nesters lay their eggs on nests of dead grass, a bed of chips or feathers, but starlings build nests that include fresh green vegetation that act as fumigants against parasites and pathogens inside their chambers.
- European Starlings are eaten in the Netherlands, Spain and France. In France tinned starling pate (pate de sansonnet) is available in many stores, including airport duty free shops.
- The oldest known European Starling in the wild was 15 years 3 months old.
Best places to see in Tennessee: European Starlings can be found in all developed areas of the state.
For more information:
Cabe, P. R. 1993. European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), The Birds of North America (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Withers, D. I. 2000. Origins of the European Starling in the United States. See article
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.