WICHE: Starlings and the bird count

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By Jeneen Wiche

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. 

It’s funny, really, what makes a bird a nuisance. Have you really every looked closely at a starling; they are quite pretty, almost like an iridescent fiber-optic decoration.

This 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.

One, alone, could be appreciated, but they 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.  

They eat insects and soft fruit largely, so on the one hand they could be beneficial if they eat Japanese beetle grubs from the lawn; in so doing they actively aerate our lawns as they push their beaks into the ground to expose their meal.

On the other hand they can strip a cherry orchard in one sitting or poop all over the driveway or make you nervous with all their chattering.

Starlings are relatives of the mynah bird known for its ability to imitate other birds and humans. Mynahs 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. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society host the Great Backyard Bird Count in February.

For the years participants in Indiana have counted on average about 13,000 starlings; in Kentucky the numbers average around 11,000. 

So, though I would rather not have to deal with flocks of European starlings year round, they are here to stay, it seems, and you can do your part in helping us keep track of their numbers (and those of other more desirable birds) by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count coming up this Feb. 12-15.

You can visit www.birdsource.org for more information on how to participate and submit your count. Or, better yet, join the Louisville Nature Center for their Bird Activity Day on Feb. 6 from noon to 3 p.m. to learn the ropes first hand.

You can also join Joan Brown and others at the Nature Center on the Feb. 13 for the bird count at their location at 3745 Illinois Avenue just around the corner from the Louisville Zoo.

For more information on the Louisville Nature center activities call 502-458-1328 or ww.louisvillenaturecenter.org.