Avian Aliens

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

nooks and crannies in old buildings and other structures, but mainly they nest in tree cavities. With only so many cavities to go around, the aggressive starling easily outcompetes native species that nest in cavities. A woodpecker may labor many hours pecking out a new cavity only to be forcibly evicted by starlings.

Starlings do have interesting and positive qualities. Their unique bill and jaw muscles work not to clamp the bill shut, but to force it open. Starlings insert their long, pointy bill into dense lawn turf and the strong muscles force the bill open, exposing grubs and other lawn pests.

Starlings are also accomplished vocalists, often imitating the calls of bobwhite quail, killdeer - even the barking sounds of dogs and squirrels! As Shakespeare suggests, they were once popular as caged birds and were taught to mimic human speech. During the breeding season, a starling's feathers are glossy and shiny. In winter, they have a speckled appearance. These "speckles" are actually the light-colored tips of their feathers. By spring these tips have worn away, leaving the bird with its glossy black appearance. The bill also changes to a bright yellow in spring.

In many ways the house sparrow shares a similar history and causes some of the same problems as the European starling. House sparrows appeared in Brooklyn in the early 1850s. People saw house sparrows - formerly known as English sparrows - as attractive birds that would control insect pests. Their remarkable colonization of North America took less than 50 years.

The house sparrow is not a true sparrow, but belongs to an Old World group known as weaverbirds. House sparrows should not be confused - or lumped with - our many native true sparrows such as field or song sparrows.

As the name suggests, house sparrows are a species that enjoys a close association with humans and their dwellings. House sparrows are at home in cities and towns, as well as around barns and feedlots in the country.

Like starlings, house sparrows nest in cavities and are aggressive competitors of native birds. They are probably more troublesome than starlings in some ways.

Small cavity-nesting species like chickadees, titmice, wrens, bluebirds and purple martins can fit through a cavity entrance too small to admit a starling. However, the smaller house sparrow is not excluded. House sparrows tenaciously claim bird houses and other cavities and will pierce the

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