Such is the strength of association between the Starling and Man, that this species is unmistakeable. While the head and body size of this species is close to that of a Blackbird, the overall appearance is of a more rakish, bustling bird, often noisy and flighty. At a distance, the adults appear black, but on closer viewing, the iridescent nature of the plumage becomes evident. Adults in breeding plumage have a yellow bill. This is dark in the winter, a time when the plumage is less iridescent but marked with white spots. Young Starlings are dull brown in colour, often with a pale throat.
It is possible to tell the sex of two adults of a breeding pair of Starlings. The male does have much more glossy plumage but an even more obvious feature is that from mid-February onwards, British and Irish breeding male Starlings will have a blue blush at the base of their bill and in females this is pink. These differences are not obvious on continental birds before they migrate but the colour comes to their bills when they arrive on the breeding grounds.
The Starlings that visit your garden during the winter are not just your local birds. Their numbers are supplemented by millions from further east in Europe where the winters get too hard for them to remain. These birds start to reach us in late September and keep coming through the whole of October and into November. One would expect these continental migrants to be shy of Man, but they are well-represented in the large roosts that occur in urban areas. The return to the Continent starts at the beginning of March and continues through to mid-April, by which time our own birds may already be sitting on eggs.
Starlings are not doing very well at the moment. The abundance of breeding Starlings in the UK has fallen rapidly, particularly since the early 1980s, and especially in woodland. The declines have been greatest in the south and west of Britain; recent BBS data suggests that populations are also decreasing in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the trends were initially upward. The species' UK conservation listing has been upgraded from amber to red as the decline has become more severe. Strong improvements have occurred in breeding performance, suggesting that decreasing survival rates, particularly of young birds, may be responsible for the observed decline.
Quite a few garden birdwatchers loathe Starlings because of the way they seem to descend on food in large numbers and eat everything in a few minutes. This attitude is unfair. Starlings are very gregarious birds. So feeding quickly in flocks is, after all, what they have evolved to do. However, it is easy to see this behaviour as greed, and the concerned garden bird feeder, who has a limited budget, may have to ration the amount of food the Starlings can get. The easiest way to do this is to feed the small birds within an enclose which excludes the Starlings.
Starlings are well known mimics. Therefore, if you hear a bird song or call in your garden, take care to ensure that it isn't a Starling mimicking the song or call!
Paper call for special HPAI issue
We are putting together a special issue of the BTO journal Bird Study to bring together research documenting the HPAI outbreak and its impacts on wild birds.