Even if we don’t love starlings, we should learn to live with them

Jun 20, 2017 /

They devour crops and cattle feed and nab other birds’ nesting sites. Still, starlings can actually show us how we can adjust our relationship to the natural world, says writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

Starlings are among the most despised birds in all of North America, and with good reason.  They are a ubiquitous, nonnative, invasive species. There are so many that no one can count them — estimates run to about 200 million. Ecologically their presence lies on a scale between highly unfortunate and utterly disastrous. In The Birdist’s Rules of Birding, a National Audubon Society blog by environmental journalist Nicholas Lund, one of the primary rules is “It’s Okay to Hate Starlings.”

Some blame Shakespeare for their presence on the American continent. In the 1800s, “acclimatization societies” began to form in the US. It was a vulnerable time for immigrants, who were homesick and hungry for the arts, literature, flowers and birds of their homelands. One aim of the societies was to introduce European species that would be “interesting and useful” and offer aesthetic and sentimental inspiration.

Eugene Schieffelin was a pharmacist who lived in the Bronx. He was an eccentric Anglophile and a Shakespeare aficionado. As deputy of the American Acclimatization Society of New York, Schieffelin, it is believed, latched onto the goal of bringing every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to Central Park, and he zeroed in on the Bard’s single reference to a starling in Henry IV.

In 1890, he purchased 80 of the birds, had them shipped to the US, and released them on a snowy March day in Central Park. Genetic research in sample populations across the continent leads ornithologists to believe that all of the hundreds of millions of starlings in North America are descendants of Schieffelin’s birds.

In the US, starlings cause $800 million in agricultural damage every year.

It took them just 80 years to populate the continent, and they’ve behaved atrociously in their New World. They feast on crops and lurk around farms and lots where they binge on feed in the troughs of cattle and swine. According to an estimate by Cornell University researchers, in the US starlings cause $800 million in agricultural damage every year.

But the harm extends beyond farms. In 1960, Eastern Airlines Flight 375 took off from Boston’s Logan Airport for Philadelphia and other points south. Seconds after takeoff, it collided with a flock of 20,000 starlings. Two of the four engines lost power, the plane plunged into the sea, and 62 people died. After the crash, officials tested seasoned pilots on flight simulators to see if any could have saved the plane in such a scenario. All failed.

In other tests, live starlings were thrown into running engines. It was found that just three or four birds could cause a dangerous power drop. This remains the worst airline crash — in terms of human fatality — that was ever caused by a collision with birds.

Starlings are despised above all else by conservationists for their ability to outcompete native birds for food and a limited number of nest sites. Starlings are cavity nesters, and each spring they start investigating crevices in buildings, homes and birdhouses, as well as holes that have been carved into trees and poles by woodpeckers. They vie for these sites with other cavity nesters, including chickadees, bluebirds and swallows.

In 2015, US government agents killed over one million starlings, yet these killings have made no dent in their numbers, and they never will.

Farmers, government agencies, conservation organizations and businesses fed up with starlings’ destruction, poop and noise have attempted to eradicate, or at least decrease, their populations. In 2015, US government agents killed over 1 million starlings — more than any other so-called nuisance species. For comparison, that same year the USDA killed 730 cats, 5,321 white-tailed deer, 61,702 coyotes and 16,500 double-crested cormorants. Yet these killings have made no dent in starling numbers, and they never will. There are simply too many starlings, and they are too good at reproducing and surviving.

Although I am not a starling apologist, it is important to consider a few emerging facts about the birds. First, while their populations have grown and spread exponentially, they have for the last thirty years or so been stable. Every species has a carrying capacity — a number of individuals that can thrive in a given place without exhausting resources — and starling populations seem to have peaked.

Further, at least some of their impact on native birdlife may turn out to be more perceived than real. Researchers at Berkeley conducted a years-long survey, published in 2003, that was designed to document the impact of starlings on indigenous species, and they were not able to determine quantifiable harm.

Historical population records for the 27 cavity-nesting species believed to be most at risk were examined from pre-starling times to the present. Most of the populations showed no decline, not even the red-bellied woodpecker’s, a species of most concern because nest usurpation by starlings has long been observed and recorded. Five species showed insignificant declines, and five species’ populations actually increased.

I asked lead author Walter Koenig, now at Cornell, how he felt about the study’s findings, which he’d known would be unpopular in conservation circles. “I’m not sure I was surprised by the results,” he told me, “but I was a tad annoyed.” Koenig studies acorn woodpeckers, and starlings will often usurp the only nests in his study site.

He is the last person who’d want to exonerate the birds, but he cannot claim that woodpeckers’ overall populations are affected. “The evidence that this competition has led to significant population declines is pretty slim, at best,” says Koenig. Yet like most ornithologists, he isn’t about to go soft on starlings: “I certainly can’t say that’s changed my attitude toward them.”

We need to design human landscapes that are hospitable to more species of native birds.

In 1939, a not-yet-famous Rachel Carson wrote an essay titled “How About Citizenship Papers for the Starling?” In it she argued that instead of seeing the bird as an invader, people should accept starlings as a regular species and give up talk of “invasive” and “nonnative.” This notion is echoed by some modern conservationists, who say there are many invasive species, like the starling, that are simply ineradicable. Instead of spending time and effort worrying about such species, we should accept them as part of the modern landscape and move on to issues we can actually do something about.

In terms of conservation, the most significant point to remember is that starlings thrive in areas that are disturbed by human presence, including dense urban environments, places where more sensitive species cannot survive in the long term. For now, it seems some birds go elsewhere when their nests are usurped. But as human sprawl continues, good habitat areas are getting smaller and smaller and may someday disappear altogether. What happens when there is no “elsewhere”? Do we shrug our shoulders and accept that we have created a world in which only starlings and a few other robust species can manage to thrive?

The answer is not simply to get rid of starlings. We need to design human landscapes that are hospitable to more species of native birds. This means less grass and more trees. We need to lobby for the creation and protection of woodland parks and forests on large and small scales.

Recent studies on the presence of trees show us two beautiful and related facts: That even a few trees in urban neighborhoods will increase the diversity of bird species, and that people who live near trees are healthier — mentally and physically — than those who don’t.

It is so simple for all of us to take part in the re-wilding of the places we live every day, to increase beauty and wilderness and wildness, even on the smallest scales.

Excerpted from the new book Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Copyright © 2017 by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Watch Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s TEDxRainier Talk here: