Learning to be a starling

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Dear Readers, I have mentioned before that my garden is inundated with fledgling starlings every year. To start with it’s just one or two but by the end of May every bough is bending under the weight of squawling youngsters. When I look up, I see adult starlings with their offspring in hot pursuit. It’s a difficult few weeks for starling parents, to be sure. To start with, the youngsters are completely clueless, standing ankle-deep in food without knowing what it is.

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Somehow the adults seem to know which ‘child’ is theirs, and they only ever feed their own offspring, regardless of the pitiful cries of other youngsters. I wonder if they know by the tone of voice, or by some subtle visual signal? The little ones all look the same to me. Most starling parents seem to have two fledglings on average, though some exhausted parents have managed three – they probably started off with four eggs.  And they might not even be their own chicks – starling mothers will sometimes lay an egg in a neighbour’s nest for them to rear. This makes me wonder if this is part of the evolutionary process by which birds like the cuckoo learned to give up nest-building and chick-rearing altogether.

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During the next few days, the chicks follow hard on the heels of their parents, or wait impatiently on a tree branch for food to arrive. I’ve noticed that they start to peck at anything that looks the slightest bit edible.

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Are unripe rowan berries edible?

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How about hawthorn flowers?

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Maybe this is food?

I suspect that most birds are ‘hard-wired’ to peck, and so, following the example of their parents, will learn what’s edible and what’s not, just as most young animals, humans included, will pick up anything and put it straight in their mouths.

Some of the fledglings are definitely faster studies than others, not just in this question of feeding themselves, but also in paying attention to the social cues of the other birds. I’ve noticed that some youngsters will head off as soon as a much larger bird lands on the bird table, while others have to be practically knocked off of it. Some stay quiet when there’s a mass scatter of the birds to the safety of the trees, while others carry on calling. I suspect that again you could probably track the process of evolution here – the quicker a youngster is on the uptake, the more likely it is to survive to pass on its genes. There is also some evidence that animals in cities that have a variety of threats and opportunities to contend with become more ‘intelligent’ (by our standards) than country creatures – in fact, animals in any particularly challenging environment may evolve to have a wider range of strategies for survival than those who live where food is plentiful. The article here has a number of interesting examples, from mountain chickadees to raccoons.

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Over the next few days, the adult starlings will gradually make their youngsters independent. They will bring less food to them, and take a longer time between visits. They will become more inpatient with infants who follow them, and will sometimes try to escape their demanding offspring. This is a hard period for the fledglings, who will now have to try to fend for themselves – approximately 50 – 80% of all nestlings fledge, but only 20% of these will survive to breed. Everything eats fledgling starlings, from jays, magpies, crows and sparrowhawks to that most dedicated of predators the domestic cat, who takes more fledglings than all other predators put together. At this time of year it’s imperative to bell any outdoor cats, or at least keep them in at dawn and dusk.

The winter will also take its toll – many starlings no longer migrate, especially those in urban areas where there is usually enough food. The fledglings need to learn where to feed, drink and roost now, so that they will be prepared for the colder weather. They offset some of this difficulty by forming into flocks of adolescents, both because many eyes can identify sources of food more quickly, and because the bonds formed now will give them an advantage when they come to breed themselves next year.

The adults will have a brief period of rest and foraging for themselves before they ‘decide’ whether or not to try for a second brood.

I had always thought that the only way of ‘sexing’ adult starlings is by the small patch of colour at the base of the beak, but apparently the irises of the birds are different colours – rich brown in the male, a lighter, more mousey brown in the female. Now all I need is good light and my binoculars handy.

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And soon the hubbub will have died down for another year, as the adult birds moult and everything goes quiet in the garden. At the moment, though, I am awoken every morning at 5 a.m by the sound of young starlings looking for their breakfast. I imagine the neighbours are delighted.

 

 

 

 

 

10 thoughts on “Learning to be a starling

  1. Fran and Bobby Freelove

    Starlings, they have to be one of our most favourite birds, we so look forward to this time of year when our gardens are heaving with boisterous babies. We can’t keep up with the demands of filling up all the holders, it costs a fortune but it’s so worth it. One of the babies favourite food is the berries on the Mahonia, it has nearly been stripped except they can’t quite work out how to get down to the end ones on the branches. Thankyou for highlighting the lovely Starling, all too often it gets a bad press.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I know exactly what you mean about the feeders – I’d say I top them up about 4 times a day. It’s such a pleasure though. The starlings were in the bird bath earlier – I’d say there were 20 bathing in a space no bigger than a dustbin lid. They reminded me of kids at the seaside. And when you know how far starling numbers have decreased over the past 20 years, it’s good to feel that you’re doing your bit to increase their numbers. A good tip about the Mahonia – I have one in a pot, but I think I’ll transplant it into the garden – that combination of berries for birds and early-flowers for bumblebees is a real winner.

      Reply
  2. Andrea Stephenson

    I adore starlings, such beautiful and characterful birds. I recently read Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt – apart from the fact that there is an awful attitude to the birds in America because they see them as a pest, it was a lovely book about starlings – and a couple of specific starlings.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Ah yes, didn’t Mozart compose a piece based on the song of his pet starling?

      I remember when you could sit in St James’s Park and watch a murmuration above the islands in the lake. Not now. I wonder where all those birds have gone? (they can’t all be in my garden, though at 4 a.m. this morning it felt like it 🙂 )

      Reply
  3. Katya

    I live in a bustling neighborhood filled during the day with all sorts of urban clatter. Waking up early to the music of living things, especially the starling’s songbook, seems to put everything into perspective.

    Reply
  4. tonytomeo

    Someone from England liked those nasty little birds enough to bring them here, where they naturalized. How annoying! They don’t shut up! They get really nasty when their babies are out and about.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Ah, that would be the guy who was introducing every bird that was mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. And yes, they woke me at 4 a.m. this morning. Feisty rather than nasty IMO 🙂

      Reply
  5. Toffeeapple

    I absolutely adore Starlings! There is so much about them to like. We used to have a lot of them here but they have disappeared; I see a few on occasion but not as frequently at I would like.

    Reply

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