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European Starlings

Neal Lewis/NPS | N. Lewis

Every time I see a flock of starlings flying around, I think of Shakespeare — and not in a good way. That is because the starling, more accurately the European starling, is not native to North America. In the 1890s, a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts released 100 European starlings in New York City’s Central Park so that all the birds in Shakespeare’s works could be observed there. Several previous attempts had failed, but this one proved successful.

The rest, as they say, is history. The starlings began to expand their range across the country. By the 1920s they had spread west to Michigan and Wisconsin. The first documented starling in North Dakota came on March 30, 1938, at J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge near Upham, ND.

Starlings can now be found throughout the state, perhaps most abundant in the eastern third of the state. They have become one of the most abundant bird species in North America, with a population estimated at over 200 million. Most range maps show them as permanent residents over the entire lower 48 states, most of Canada, and a small portion of Alaska.

For those unfamiliar with starlings, they look like heavy-set blackbirds with a long and slender yellow bill. Their color is black with an iridescent purple-green.

They are often boisterous and, like blackbirds, are often observed in flocks. They typically inhabit areas occupied by humans such as more open areas, parks, fields, and the like, with some trees and buildings in both urban and rural areas.

Starlings are generalist feeders, feeding on a wide variety of items including insects, spiders, earthworms, snails, fruits, seeds, grains, and garbage. They are often observed feeding on grain in cattle yards.

European starlings are cavity nesters. Suitable nesting cavities are often in short supply, and the starlings are widely disparaged for their extreme aggressiveness in laying claim to or ousting suitable nesting cavities from native birds such as bluebirds, flickers, tree swallows, wood ducks, buffleheads, and flycatchers. 

It’s worth noting that eastern bluebird populations declined in the early 1900s, which is often attributed to competition with starlings and house sparrows. But by the 1970s, eastern bluebird populations have been recovering, assumedly due to widespread efforts to put up bluebird nest boxes.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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