Avian Aliens

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

"Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer'..."

It wasn't a memorable line from the play Henry IV. But, when William Shakespeare wrote it in 1597, he had no way of knowing the consequences it would later have for many North American birds.

It was because of this reference to the starling that these birds eventually wound up in the United States. In fact, two of our most common birds - the European Starling and the house sparrow - are aliens brought to our shores in the 1800s.

The "American Acclimatization Society" had the unfortunate goal of bringing all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's works to North America. In 1890, after two failed attempts to establish them, the group released 60 European starlings in New York's Central Park. By 1950, starlings were spreading across the continent. Today there are over 200 million European starlings in North America.

"The meek shall inherit the earth" does not apply to starlings. They are the thugs of the bird world. Among those who know and love birds, the starling is almost universally hated. They are seen as noisy, dirty, greedy and mean. People describe them as "flying rats."

A mob of starlings overtaking a bird feeding station populated by cardinals, chickadees and finches is like a motorcycle gang roaring into a church social. There may be nothing you can do to totally eliminate starlings from your bird feeders. However, where they are a problem, avoid giving them their favorite foods: suet, peanut butter, table scraps and anything containing whole or cracked corn.

Aside from being a pain in the neck at backyard bird feeders, starlings can cause other more serious problems. In fall and winter, starlings often gather in enormous roosts in urban areas. Such roosts are not only a nuisance, but the droppings from thousands of birds can be a potential health hazard. Red-winged blackbirds, grackles and other native blackbirds often join starlings at these roosts, but referring to them as "blackbird roosts" is improper since the European starling belongs to its own family and is not a blackbird.

Cities sometimes try to break up winter roosts by playing loud recordings of starling distress calls, firing propane cannons and placing predator decoys nearby. Such methods have had mixed success. Local ordinances should be consulted before attempting any of the noisier techniques.

Starlings compete for nesting sites. They like sheltered

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