European invasion

No, I wasn’t listening to the Beatles today.  I do like them, but that’s not the point.  Though I was a child of the 80’s, I’m also not referring to the New Wavers from then.  I did, however, go through my own spiked and colored hair phase.

The actual point of this post is to comment on the starlings I saw this morning.  European Starlings are, well, European.  It’s in the name.  They were brought over to the U.S. in the 1890’s and released into Central Park in NYC.  Within a fairly short period of time, these birds have spread all over the country.  I remember stories my sister told of sound cannons being used in Columbus, Ohio to disperse the enormous flocks of these birds.

Physically, they are both striking and a bit odd looking.  Their iridescent feathers can give them purple or green or black hues, depending on the angle at which you see them.  They have a round, almost tubular yellow beak that stands out against their dark feathers.  I wouldn’t quite call them pretty, but certainly interesting.  The downside to these starlings, however, is that they are cavity nesters.  A cavity nesting bird is one who, well, nests in a cavity.  These can be hollowed out parts of trees or holes in banks or any number of places.  European Starlings are weird cavity nesters in that they don’t tend to build their own cavities.  They find natural ones or, barring that, take ones that have been built by other species.

On my run this morning I saw a pair of starlings doing some nest building.  They were picking up pine needles from someone’s yard and flying them up to a hole in a Willow Oak, about 20 feet off of the main trunk of the tree, on one of the lower branches.  I didn’t see any other birds around, so it may have been an empty cavity that the starlings found on their own.  On the other hand…hmmm…

In the neighborhood there are lots of Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a reasonable number of Northern Flickers.  Both of these birds have been shown to have reduced nesting success in the presence of European Starlings!

Ingold, D.J.  1989.  Nesting phenology and competition for nest sites among Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and European Starlings. Auk 106:  209-217

Ingold, D.J.  1996.  Delayed nesting decreases reproductive success in Northern Flickers:  Implications for competition with European Starlings. Journal of Field Ornithology 67: 321-326

Nest-building is usually such a fun thing to watch, but I can’t help but wonder just who got pushed out for those European bullies!


About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
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