Published February 10, 2013, 04:00 AM

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Curious in several ways, starlings make us curious, too

The starling is a curious bird — in both senses of the word. It is an eager learner, especially of songs, and an energetic explorer of its surroundings. It is also a bit odd. They also evoke questions from human observers, and I’ve found them quite fascinating.

By: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald

The starling is a curious bird — in both senses of the word.

It is an eager learner, especially of songs, and an energetic explorer of its surroundings.

It is also a bit odd.

They also evoke questions from human observers, and I’ve found them quite fascinating.

Starlings are common in our area, often even abundant, and yet they seem to be unfamiliar to many people, based on the number of questions I get. Surprisingly often, the answer to a description of an odd or unusual bird is the starling.

Perhaps this should not be surprising, because the starling is a changeling. Its plumage differs significantly through the seasons. So does the color of its bill. What’s constant, however, is the overall impression of the bird, including its posture and its shape, both of which are characteristic.

Put plainly, the starling is pointy-looking. It has a rather long, sharply pointed beak. The wings are relatively short, but quite broad. Yet they come to a decided point. The tail is short, almost ridiculously so, and this contributes to the impression that the starling is a pointed projectile launched into the air.

This impression extends to the bird at rest, as well. The starling’s posture is expectant, as if it is about to take off. This gives it a sort of ruffled-up, hunched-backed appearance; not all the time, but often enough to rank as characteristic.

But these are perhaps not the first things that an observer notices about a starling, or any other bird. Instead, the human eye is drawn to color, and that’s where the starling becomes confusing.

Starlings move through a succession of plumages during the course of the year. These are relative to the birds’ hormonal levels. Birds that are seeking partners can be luminously iridescent, often appearing to shine with green, blue or purple. Often, the birds appear glossy black, sometimes even oily.

It’s a little bit like an eager adolescent dressing up for the high school prom.

Once mating occurs, starlings become drabber in appearance. By late August, the birds are much more plain. They’re brownish, overall, and altogether quite drab.

This is the condition of starlings in early winter, the time when starlings are most obvious.

As winter moves along, the starlings begin to change color again, and by February, they are no longer drab but not yet fully resplendent.

One change is in the color of the bill. It is dark in nonbreeding birds and bright yellow in birds that are seeing reproductive partners.

This is a reliable sign of approaching spring — one of the earliest and most dependable in the bird world.

That’s hormones again.

Overall, spring plumage is lighter than winter plumage, and often flecked with yellow or cream-colored spots. These don’t entirely disappear as the season advances, but they are subsumed by the iridescence. Maybe overwhelmed is a better word.

Thus, the starling appears successively to be three different birds in one body.

Starling vocalizations vary enormously, too. This bird is a mimic. More than once I’ve heard a starling that passed for a killdeer or a meadowlark, a bit off but still convincing.

Of course, this ability causes additional confusion in identifying the birds, and makes us curious about them.

The birds’ own curiosity is expressed in an odd way, too. Starlings are collectors, sometimes bringing a wide variety of found objects into their nests.

The starling is an immigrant, and this is reflected in its proper name, European starling. In 1890 and 1891, about 100 individual starlings were released in New York’s Central Park.

The entire North American population of starlings, now almost as great as the human population, is descended from these introductions, genetic testing has shown. It’s probably the most successful avian introduction.

Ever.

Anywhere.

But starlings aren’t entirely welcome. They compete with native species for nests and food. They form enormous flocks that create quite a mess on the sides of urban buildings. On a visit to Washington, D.C., I once saw a flock that must have numbered tens of thousands of starlings.

Nothing like that number of starlings occurs here — but the starling is a settled part of local bird life and has been since about 1930. Since there’s no sign that starlings will disappear, I figure we should enjoy and appreciate their uniqueness.


Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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