Articles

The Starling — Saint or Sinner?

Despite fire hoses, fireworks, stuffed owls, moth balls and radio jive, the controversial starling has changed an immigration to an invasion

C. FRED BODSWORTH January 15 1949
Articles

The Starling — Saint or Sinner?

Despite fire hoses, fireworks, stuffed owls, moth balls and radio jive, the controversial starling has changed an immigration to an invasion

C. FRED BODSWORTH January 15 1949

The Starling — Saint or Sinner?

Despite fire hoses, fireworks, stuffed owls, moth balls and radio jive, the controversial starling has changed an immigration to an invasion

C. FRED BODSWORTH

CANADIANS have tried everything from moth balls to cannon in their war against the starling. Despite their efforts, this doughty European immigrant has swept across the continent as far as the Rockies, a tidal wave of black feathers, to become North America’s most numerous (latest estimate: 85 million) and,

currently, most controversial bird.

It is chiefly the starling’s atrocious bedtime manners that have given him a popularity rating on a par with that of a worm in an apple, and which have made him a target for a greater diversification of weapons than any other creature. The men who imported the starlings into America (120 were released in Centra! Park, New York, in 1890) felt we needed a bird that would add interest to towns and cities. They were annoyed at the manner in which most North American native birds stayed back in the woods. The starling, however, became a commuter in reverse, getting his livelihood from farmlands during the day, then flocking to city shade trees and ledges of buildings by the hundred thousand for the night.

Starlings chatter so blatantly in their sleep that whole neighborhoods are kept awake and, if there are a few heavy slumberers who do drop off, even they are roused at dawn when the noisy aliens begin their daybreak serenade.

Just the same, according to a lot of experts, this kill-off-thc-starling war we’ve been waging so long and so futilely has all been a big mistake. From no less an authority than the U. S. Department of Agriculture, backed up by Canadian Government wild-life scientists, comes word that the long-maligned starling is no feathered rascal after all. He’s an angel in black, so they say, who rates a spot near the top of our list of beneficial birds. The starling, they declare, gorges himself with more crop-destroying insect pests than most birds twice his size.

But saint or satan, he has made more enemies than anything that bears feathers, including women’s hats, and the campaign against him will go on as relentlessly—and as futilely—as ever.

The sciehtists who have been won over to his side because of that insatiable appetite for insect pests are not such keen starling lovers that they would have us stuff cotton batting in our ears and bid the black chatterboxes a friendly welcome to city streets. The verdict of the bird experts is:

“In towns or cities, mow ’em down. In the country, leave ’em be, because they are capable of a lot of good there.”

Everything except the atom has been tried

against the.breed. Toronto authorities attack their roosts with bombs, shotguns, magnesium flares, water hoses and a variety of fireworks. They’ve been doing it for years and have now decided that starlings, like hay fever, submit to no cure. They tried shotguns and tree-thinning first, with little effect. They called out the fire department and doused the starlings with water hoses, but the birds just thought it was a t hundershower. They bought hundreds of dollars worth of Roman candles and shot brilliant balls of fire into the roosting flocks. Toronto juveniles gathered to enjoy the show; the starlings stayed around for the same reason. Residents turned out to rattle cans and pound pans but the starlings thought it was a game and joined in the chorus. A munition company developed bombs that could be placed in the trees during the day and detonated at dusk by batteries on the ground. The bombs splintered trees, terrified residents and scared the starlings to the next block. In north Toronto in 1947 they frightened the starlings away with firecrackers and kept the firecrackers popping into the night to prevent the birds from returning. This effort was abandoned, however, when residents complained they would sooner listen to the starlings than the crackers.

Milwaukee last year placed a number of electric horns in its starling trees with wires running to switches on house porches below. The starlings just moved down the street to where there were no horns. Authorities abandoned the effort when

they decided (hey couldn’t afford to put a hom in every tree. A St. Thomas, Ont., man fastened a radio loudspeaker in h»s cherry tree, but the birdH soon learned to pluck their cherries to swing and jive.

They’re Afraid of Owls

OT. THOMAS had 'better luck when it called in a O couple of local aviators and had them buzz the starling roosts at low altitude. The stunt worked fine until aviation authorities warned that the pilots’ licenses would be canceled if they didn’t adhere to altitude regulations.

Springfield, 111., tried hanging sacks of moth balls in the frees and painting limbs and ledges with glue. The moth balls didn’t work, the glue dried out so quickly that it proved too expensive. At last report they were trying to develop a cheaper glue out of molasses and were sending colored balloons up through the roosts.

The most effective method yet devised for frightening off starlings is to place stuffed owls in the trees. The starlings zoom in, see their arch enemy the owl and hurry off for parts unknown.

In Decatur, III., two fellows are getting rich manufacturing aluminum owls with luminous faces for $15 each. Business slumped after the first couple of months when the starlings learned to sneak in behind the owls. Now they paint faces on both sides of their owls and the sterlings find an owl staring them in the eyes no matter what approach they choose.

But the starling war hasn’t been waged without its pacifists. In Toronto an animal protection society has doggedly opposed each campaign on the grounds that humans are the last creatures created on earth, and that sterlings deserve some consideration as prior tenants. There have been numerous complaints, too, that the shooting of sterlings destroys trees, kills many other birds and teaches cruelty to

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children who gather around to watch the slaughter.

When theatres in St. Catharines, Ont., offered free tickets to children bringing in 10 pairs of starling legs, the kids started turning in the legs of everything from wrens to turkeys. The Humane Society and Children’s Aid Society quickly effected a “cease fire.”

The starling is a chunky, humpbacked blackbird with a sawed-off tail and a long, pointed bill (the other blackbirds have longer tails and short

bills). In spring and summer, from a distance, they appear as black as an undertaker’s frock coat, but at close range and in good light the black becomes a resplendent iridescence of greens and purples. For fall and winter wear, every feather takes on a white tip which gives the bird a speckled grey-black dress. During summer the youngsters are brown, but they molt in September and grow a new feather jacket that is the same sombre black as papa’s and mama’s.

On the ground, starlings walk instead of hop, zigzagging erratically in their search for food like sailors on a shoreleave spree. On the wing they are swift —up to 50 miles per hour—and highly skilful fliers. Mighty flocks execute aerial manoeuvres with the precision

of a company of well-drilled soldiers. Wheeling and turning the flocks seem to move as with one mind, each individual in a thousand-bird flight altering direction or speed at exactly the same instant as its fellows. Unlike other flocking birds, they follow no leader.

In weighing his merits and failings, the first evidence to consider is: what does the starling eat? I wish some of the starling haters could sit in as I have on biological laboratory studies when starling stomachs are being examined. The stomach contents— caterpillars, beetles, moths, flies, weed seeds, grain and fruit—are washed out into small white glazed dishes and passed around among a jury of botanists and insect experts for identification. Peering through microscopes, referring

to specimens and ponderous books of reference, they identify every seed and insect individually. Frequently they leave only an insect’s wing or a leg or two on which to base their identification.

Facts which emerge are that 50% of the starling’s year-round diet consists of insects, particularly bugs of crop-destroying species. The starling feeds almost entirely on the ground, notin the trees as most birds do, therefore the insects he gobbles down are insects that are chomping ourgardens, h.ay and grain fields. Birds that eat tree borers are doing us a big favor, since we need our forests, but our first necessity is the tilled field.

One evening last summer I stood in a field talking to a southwestern Ontario tobacco farmer while we listened to gunners and police blazing away with shotguns at roosting starlings in a nearby city.

“Every time one of those guns goes off,” the farmer told me, “I can count on another hundred cutworms for next year. If those fellows could come out here during the day and see the flocks of starlings eating cutworms in my toibacco fields, they wouldn’t be in such a rush to get out their shotguns.”

The U. S. Department of Agriculture agrees. Here’s its official pronouncement on the starling: “It is one of the two or three mosteffective bird enemies of terrestrial insect pests in this country. It is economically superior to the ro>bin, catbird, red-wing blackbird, flicker, grackle, cowbird or English sparrow. Only the meadow lark, bluebird and martin have food habits that are as beneficial to man.”

Not Fond of Cereals

The starling is not always a little black angel when he goes hunting dinner. Occasionally he favors cherries for dessert. But here again stomach analysis comestohisdefen.se. It is the starling’s way of eating cherries, not the amount he eats, that has given him a bad name among fruit growers. The robin eats a few cherries from each tree and although he’s at it all the time he does it so subtly that he doesn’t get caught. Starlings, on the other hand, will swoop down on a single tree in a big flock, strip tbe fruit and leave all other trees in the neighborhood unmolested. Thus, starling damage to fruit crops is more apparent to growers, although actually the robin causes twice as much loss.

The other frequently heard charge against the starling—that he eats corn and grain in the field—is a case of a gent being judged by the company he keeps. Most of this damage is done by flocks of other blackbirds which are mistakingly identified as starlings. It is true there are frequently starlings in these blackbird flocks but, while their pals are eating grain, the starlings are tagging along eating insects. In one study, 1,059 starlings were shot in

grain fields during the harvesting seaton and only 14 yielded corn or grain to the autopsist.

There’s another antisocial habit against the starling’s record. He is never satisfied with anything hut the finest nesting cavity or bird box, and the bullying way in which he commandeers nesting sites from other birds has driven some of our meeker nat ives, such as the bluebird and tree swallow, away from farms and urban communities.

The West’s Own Pest

While bluebirds, swallows and their kin may be prettier to look at than the starling, from a cold dollars and cents viewpoint the starling is worth more than any of those birds he has displaced—except possibly the bluebird —because of his ravenous insect appetite. Furthermore, when other birds hie south in the fall, most of the starlings stay behind to entertain us with their clowning ways. Their song is a harsh potpourri of squawks and squeeks, but they are skilful at imitating other birds’ songs. They have long memories, sometimes tossing off the songs of summer birds in the dead of winter. The mimicking skill of a pet starling in Bowmanville, Ont., earned him a spot on a nation-wide Christmas radio broadcast a year or two ago. Before the mike while thousands listened, Bowmanville’s talking starling repeated “Merry Christmas,” “I’m a naughty birdie,” “You’re crazy,” and then wound up his performance by whistling several bars of “Home on the Range.”

The west coast is unwilling host to a starling cousin, the Chinese starling or myna, which has become as notorious a character west of the Rockies as the European starling in the East. Back in the 90’s several cages of Chinese starlings were being shipped to Liverpool. The skipper of the vessel carrying them became enraged with their noisy chatter. When he docked at Vancouver he cursed them roundly, let them all go, and said if they wanted to reach Liverpool they’d have to fly the rest of the way. Like many another emigre, the mynas decided that here was their true home.

The Barriers Are Up

Will the Rockies finally halt the European starling’s advance? Probably not. For farther south, according to recent reports, the starling has reached points in Idaho, eastern California and Mexico. All these points are halfway through the Rockies. Like the white man who hlazed his trail, the starling evidently isn’t going to stop until the whole continent is his.

The starling story will never be repeated in North America, for today it is illegal to introduce foreign birds or mammals into Canada or the U. S. Experience has shown that a foreign species when brought to a new land leaves behind it the diseases and natural enemies which control its population at home. It either dies out, or multiplies like interest at 15%, frequently becoming a menace. Many biologists will refuse to agree now that the starling belongs in the menace class, but they are all ready to admit that introductions of foreign wild life usually turn out about as happily as putting a cat in with a cageful of canaries.

The starling, probably more than any other bird, is a conflicting imbroglio of good and evil, a sinner one moment, a saint the next. In my books he is far more saint than sinner—but then I don’t live near a starling roost nor do I own a cherry orchard. ★