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OUTDOOR WORLD: Starlings are on the wing

While the summer we enjoyed this year was one for the record books there is no denying it is coming to an end and there is change in the air.

While cooler temperatures in the morning indicate fall is approaching there is another change I look for every year which signals warm weather is retreating. That sign is the flocks of starlings which I see in fields and perched on power lines around Pictou County. During the summer, starlings tend to remain in small groups as they nest, and feed. At this time of year they begin to gather in larger groups as they prepare to migrate south for the winter.
While starlings are not my favourite bird, there is no denying they have an interesting story regarding how they ended up here. In fact, I have seen them described as the most hated bird in America. Starlings not native to North America, the bird we have here is the European starling and it was introduced to North America in the 1890s. As the story goes starlings were released in New York’s Central Park by a fan of Shakespeare who wanted to have all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s work present in North America. One hundred starlings were released over two years and these birds have increased to millions, which now range from Mexico to the Arctic.

One of the reasons starlings have been so successful in their new home is the fact that they are a very adaptable bird. Starlings live for about five years and survive on a diet which ranges from fruit and plants to insects and garbage. The birds nest in May and may nest twice if conditions are right. Each brood consists of up to six eggs. Starlings are very aggressive and will drive other birds away from their nesting sites.

The starlings in our part of the country migrate to warmer areas in the United Sates or southern Canada for the winter. Prior to departing they form the large flocks we are beginning to see these days. One of the most fascinating aspects of this flocking behaviour is the tendency for these flocks to move in unison as they fly over the landscape. This behaviour has a name, murmuration, and it is fascinating to watch as it appears like a flock of hundreds of birds is moving as one organism. Thanks to the Internet we can now watch some incredible views of thousands of starlings exhibiting this behaviour around the world. Starlings are not the only birds which exhibit this behavior, as it is also common among many shore birds.
The behaviour probably has some advantage in avoiding predators and, the development of high-speed photography has revealed some complex physics is in play as each bird responds to the movement of the bird next to it. While I may not miss starlings when they leave for the winter I do admire their interesting flocking behaviour and will be looking forward to their return next spring.

Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.
©2018 Don MacLean
 

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