Starling Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

The European starling was one of the species that prompted me to begin my species dossiers. The first short paragraph contained everything I could say I knew about the species from personal experience when I set up the dossiers in 1985-86. It was embarrassing, and prompted me to pay more attention. Notes added later begin with date codes.


Starlings usually are associated with human structures.

A year-round resident throughout Indiana and Illinois, as well as southern Pennsylvania. Usually they are seen around human constructs, nesting in buildings, street lights, etc. They also nest in tree cavities and bird houses, even in open woods well away from people. In late winter they become vocal, mixing squeaky “querk” and “joo” notes with mimicries that are realistic but low in volume. Frequently they perch in and around tops of chimneys on cold winter days. Their plumage adds abundant white spots to feather tips in winter. Observations of a nest in a hollow catalpa on the Purdue campus, spring 1976, impressed me with the frequency of feeding trips and the domination of the diet with large caterpillars. They forage mostly on the ground in short grass. The young are very noisy, especially when a parent returns with food. Eggs are pale blue. The young are a uniform gray in color, forming into flocks of their own after leaving their parents. In fall, starlings often form large flocks, sometimes mixed with assorted blackbirds.

15JE86. A pair of starlings chased a broad-winged hawk in Maple Grove. It had paused briefly in the tree where they were, but I could not see if it carried anything. They uttered rattling calls throughout.

Starlings mobbing red-tailed hawk at Mayslake.

29MR87. Starlings on a road after rain, apparently eating worms.

6AP87. Starling at Willowbrook mimicking spotted sandpiper.

14MY87. Bird on horizontal branch of dead tree performing a display: bill pointed up, neck only stretched a little, wings lowered and fluttering more or less in coordination with a continuous calling, a mix of rattles, whistles and gurgles that continued for over a minute.

5MR88. Starlings imitating pewees, McKee Marsh.

21MR88. Starlings imitating purple martins, Willowbrook.

2MY88. Gathering nest material.

5MY88. First thin, high begging cries heard from a nest.

Older starling nestlings.

6JE88. First independent starling youngster seen, and the harsh “jeer” begging notes are not nearly as ubiquitous as during the past 10 or so days. First brood done.

4AU88. Youngster (independent) in Willowbrook Back 40 eating fruit from black cherry tree, spitting out seeds.

22MR89. Starling at Willowbrook loudly and accurately imitating the sound of a squirrel chewing on a nut.

24MR89. At Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve, starling imitations of nighthawk, meadowlark.

4JL89. Second brood of starling young chattering in nests, Myers Grove, near Jeffersonville, Indiana.

Starling pauses during a frigid mid-winter bath.

24JA90. Extended (at least 2 minutes) fight between starlings. They locked bills and beat one another with their wings, each trying to force the other onto its back. When beak grip lost, they sought it again. Finally one broke free and flew away. The other flew up to the top of an adjacent building and sang, with slight lifting of wings at 1-2-second intervals.

1NO99. Starlings mimicking killdeers at Willowbrook.

30JL00. Large flock of starlings, many or most of them immature, in trees on south side of McKee Marsh.

Starling flock on an early December morning.

9MR01. On 3 occasions this week, I have seen an interesting reaction by the flock of starlings hanging around the outdoor cages at Willowbrook to a hawk passing through. On 3 different days there were low flying hawks, an adult red-tail, a Cooper’s, and a young red-tail. Each time, the starlings all took off and flew in a tight flock. At first it reminded me of a mobbing flight, or a shielding as the red-necked phalaropes do, but soon it became clear that the flock was not pacing the hawk but adopting a course oblique to its path. The remarkable features were the flock’s tightness, which was a little greater and with no outliers in contrast to the usual, and the coincidence in their taking flight with the arrival of the hawk. They landed as soon as the hawk was gone.

1JA02. Starlings at the Morton Arboretum are feeding heavily on a bumper crop of red cedar fruit.


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