Bird of the Week #4 European Starling

European Starlings hogging food

Let me just get this out of the way: I hate starlings. Starlings are an invasive species, starlings are pests, starlings are bullies and gluttons at bird feeders, and starlings not particularly pretty to look at. To get rid of starlings, I am forced to make changes to my feeding habits potentially at a cost to seeing more desirable birds. I see no benefit to feeding them and encourage others in this hobby to also seek out ways to discourage starlings.

European Starling blocks photo of Northern Cardinal

That being said, I am going to try my best to be informative about the European Starling and provide tips on how to deter them. Unfortunately, starlings are a fact of life and here to stay. Expect this post to be a little snarkier than others. Maybe that’s entertaining.

As the name implies, the European Starling originates in Europe. In 1890, a genius named Eugene Schieffelin had the bright idea to introduce starlings to the United States. He brought over sixty of the feathery rascals because he wanted all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to be in America. For some reason. These starlings bred and bred and bred until they could terrorize all of the United States. Now there’s an estimated population of 150 million of these terrible birds.

One of the few advantages of the starling is that they eat lots of insects, which is beneficial in keeping pests away from crops. On the flip side, starlings also like to eat the crops and are thus pests themselves. Even if the crops aren’t food crops, they’ll still dig up the seeds of young crops and eat those too. They will also eat and contaminate livestock feed. Oh and they’re major carriers of the fungus that causes histoplasmosis, so there’s that too.

The little devils are omnivores and eat just about anything they can get their hands on. Their favorite food is insects, though, so if you put out mealworms, they will go absolutely bonkers. This is unfortunate because mealworms also happen to be the favorite food of many more desirable birds, including bluebirds.

Starlings are very intelligent birds and have a talent for mimicry. They’ve been known to replicate sounds and even human speech. Mozart actually had a pet starling that was known to sing his music. Starlings don’t learn words, though, just the sounds. They can make alright pets, as they do fine in captivity, but they are messy and, like I mentioned above, can spread disease through their poop.

There are a lot of ways you can mitigate starlings from getting at your feeders and each one seems to offer disadvantages. I’ll go over a few:

  1. Change your seed diet: Starlings have very weak beaks that are not suited for cracking shells. If you have a starling problem, avoid anything without a shell such as sunflower chips, cracked corn, etc. Unfortunately, a lot of “premium” birdseeds include sunflower chips. I’ve also seen some starlings tough it out with black oil sunflower seeds. Switching to stripe sunflower seeds may be your best bet, as those have tough shells. Your cardinals, finches, blue jays, etc. won’t mind, but starlings can’t take it. Safflower is another seed with a tough shell that “good” birds don’t mind. In fact, cardinals love safflower.
  2. Change your seed feeders: One good choice is a caged squirrel-proof feeder. The holes are generally large enough for a cardinal to get through, but too small for a starling. You’ll be excluding blue jays as a result, but you can also comfortably put out more high quality seed without losing any to the starlings, grackles, or squirrels.
  3. Change your suet feeders: If you use a suet feeder, you’re probably getting starling after starling eating the whole thing. I’ve lost an entire suet cake in only a single day because starlings devoured it. I switched to an upside-down suet feeder like this one and the problem was, mostly, solved. Starlings are not acrobats and don’t well eating while hanging, but woodpeckers, chickadees, and others really don’t mind. There are also suet feeders that are basically two pieces of wood with a narrow slit. Woodpeckers can get at it with their long tongues, but starlings will struggle.
  4. Clap: Whenever I see a grackle or a starling, I go outside and clap my hands as loudly as I can. Just one clap will do. The downside is that the birds I actually want will be scared off too, so I’m careful about doing this when cardinals or bluebirds are around, but finches and sparrows wait about thirty seconds and come right back. The grackles and starlings don’t come back for a while, usually.
  5. Last resort: I do not recommend this method, but I will point out that starlings are not protected by the Migratory Bird Act. They are considered vermin and if your starling problem is truly that bad, a BB gun might be your last resort. Check up on your local laws and ordinances before this and make sure you’re able to shoot safely. I highly, highly, highly implore you to try other methods before killing these birds, but it is an option, in most cases.

There might be people out there who absolutely love starlings. If you can’t tell, I’m not one of them. If you like these birds, please tell me why. I’d love to hear other opinions. Or if you have your method for keeping them away, I’d love to hear that too. Thanks for reading!

Next week, we’ll have a backyard favorite: the Northern Cardinal!

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