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WICHE: Look out for Starlings – carefully

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There are thousands of Starlings in Kentucky, but is that good or bad?

Last Sunday I felt like I was under siege. There were starlings everywhere; so much so that I feared being splattered with poop at every turn.

The surprising thing about starlings is that they are everywhere yet not from here. It’s another story of one good intention going bad. Apparently back in 1890, in honor of a Shakespeare Festival in New York City’s Central Park, 60 European starlings were released. The following year another 40 were released, and today the bird is one of the most numerous species in North America.

Most species that adapt to city life seem to do well in North America. The Starlings settled in and started raising their families under the eaves of the American History Museum; then they spread from town to town, dropping down in flocks to feed on grubs in our suburban lawns. They made it from Central Park to Southern California in about 70 years.

Have you really every looked closely at a starling? They are quite pretty, almost like an iridescent fiber-optic decoration. That is their summer costume. This time of the year, however, they are a bit dull but still interesting enough. They grow new, white-tipped feathers in the fall, which make them look spotted.

It’s funny, really, what qualities help to define a bird as a nuisance. One bird, alone, could be appreciated, but these birds never arrive alone. These highly social birds usually flock in the hundreds. That’s why they get bad press.

I hate when they land in the side yard or on the roof (where we collect our water) because of some sort of perceived threat that comes with numbers and the poop they leave behind. Images of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds flash in my head.

The reality is that Starlings predominantly eat insects and soft fruit, so they could be considered beneficial if they eat Japanese beetle grubs from the lawn. Right?

They are good at aerating our lawns as they push their beaks into the ground to expose their meal, right? On the other hand they can strip a cherry orchard in one sitting, or poop all over the drive way or make you nervous with all their chattering.

Starlings are relatives of the myna bird known for its ability to imitate other birds and humans. Mynas can be taught to talk, even. Starlings mostly chatter among themselves during the day as they move in flocks and at night when they roost in trees.

Their roosting sites en masse can make for some seriously messy morning-afters! This is one of the No. 1 reasons why we do not have any bamboo at the farm, because large clusters of bamboo are a favorite Starling roost.

At last count, participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count have tallied on average about 14,000 Starlings in Indiana and more than 12,000 in Kentucky. It is estimated that there are 200 million across the North American continent.

Another strange sight you may notice in the skies these days (or eerie cooing sound) is the northward migration of Sandhill Cranes. This is something to pause and look up for (unlike the Starlings.)

The cranes circle in the skies as they move northward from Florida. The Cranes wintering in Arizona and New Mexico take a different route, but they all wind up in the same staging area in Kearney, Neb., where there is a mass convergence of cranes in March and April for refueling on the Platte River before they continue their migration northward.

The instinct of the Sandhill crane is strong, and the adaptability of the Starling impressive – oh no, here they come again.

 

Check out gardening columnist Jeneen Wiche’s work at www.SwallowRailFarm.com. You can find her columns also at www.SentinelNews.com/agriculture. She answers questions once a month in SentinelNewsPlus. To submit a question, send an E-mail to jwiche@shelbybb.netand type “Sentinel-News” in the subject field.