How to Appreciate Starlings and Other Non-native Birds

I can see it now. A veritable army of birders, nature lovers, and other people who support eliminating invasive species drag me from the couch after writing this piece and out the door to be larded and seeded before being thrown into a flock of starlings. Now that image does seem a bit extreme, but you have to admit it’s creative. How could a self-proclaimed naturalist and avid birder such as myself claim to even like European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and other non-natives like mute swans (Cygnus olor) and house sparrows (Passer domesticus)?!

Well, if you let me make my case, I will tell you that these annoyingly common non-natives can offer an easy window into the wild that you can see right out your front door. This especially true if you live in a city or densely-packed suburbia.

Adopt, Adapt, and Improve

Surviving in the wild is a harsh challenge for even the toughest animals on Earth and being able to find enough food, water, shelter, and live long enough to pass on your genes is a tall order. No wonder up to 70% of first year house sparrows die before they’re even a year old!

Despite the difficulties of surviving day to day, starlings have shown that they have been extremely adaptable in new environments. Since their introduction in Central Park, NYC in 1890, their population has grown from only 100 birds or so to an estimated 200 million birds in North America alone. According to Worldometers.info, the combined population of Northern America (consisting of the United States, Canada, Bermuda, Greenland, and Saint Pierre and Miquelon) is 365,647,330 people. This means that for each person living in Northern America (sorry Latin America), you could have 1-2 starlings per person!

Their ability to exploit human habitation for their own use is the key to their survival. Starlings thrive in open areas like farm fields, soccer pitches, and front lawns where they pry insects, seeds, and food scraps from the ground. When they need a place to sleep and rest, they congregate in urban and suburban areas since they tend to be a few degrees warmer than the surrounding rural areas.

Starlings seek out crab apples in Norwalk, CT. Photo by author.

They also use the spaces in buildings to their advantage as well, fitting into tight holes in roofs, illuminated store signs, and even building interiors. You’ve probably noticed sparrows and starlings winging their way through the rafters of big box stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Walmart, knowing that they were likely to be safe from predators, harsh weather, and other dangers found out in the wild. Their ability to leverage human influence to aid in their survival is probably a credit to why they’re still around today.

Busking for Attention

If you’ve ever visited any large freshwater pond in southern New England, you might have seen several large white long-necked birds swimming amongst the more abundant mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Canada geese (Branta canadensis). If you live in southern New England, along the edge of the Great Lakes, or near Seattle, these are most likely mute swans. They likely escaped from private collections and made their way into the wild. The two native swans, trumpeters (C. buccinator) and tundras (C. colombianus) had been hunted to near extinction by that point, leaving the mute swans as the only swan people knew about.

While state biologists have long contended that they do damage to the environment by pulling up aquatic vegetation, bullying other waterfowl from prime feeding areas, and acting aggressively towards human beings, people still have a long and storied appreciation for swans. Why else would we laud stories like Swan Lake or want to get a ride on the swan boats in the Boston Public Gardens?

One of my favorite behaviors to look out for in the spring time is busking. While it shouldn’t to be confused with people looking to make money from selling balloon animals or putting on rousing street performances, like the former, it does serve attract attention. When you take a ride on the swan boats in Boston’s Public Garden, you’ll notice that the area where the operator sits is flanked with the raised wings of artificial swan and that is by design. It is deliberately mimicking the behavior of a busking swan.

Busking cob swan, all attitude, no exceptions. Photo by author.

Busking is when a male mute swan (a cob) will puff out the secondary feathers on his wings, while drawing the primaries in close to his body. As he does so, he swims powerfully towards the target of his ire and pulls his head and neck into a tight “S”-shape. The tighter his neck and head, the more irate he is. As he gets closer, he will follow, chase, and eventually try to attack the source of his rage. He will do this to protect his mate (the pen) and his young (cygnets), as well as his chosen territory which includes the water they swim in and the shores they nest on. Mute swans have been known to attack ducks, geese, other swans, dogs, and people of all shapes and sizes. According to SwanLovers.net, they are particularly vexxed by white clothes. As for their name, “mute” swans do make noise, opting for loud hissing when annoyed and throbbing wing beats when flying. They just happen to be quieter when compared to the calls made by their relatives.

All the Colors of their Wings

Have you ever taken the time to look closely at a house sparrow’s plumage? Chances are that you haven’t because to many people they are dull brown birds. Even native sparrows are put down by beginner and expert birders alike as L.B.J’s (little brown jobs). I get it. It can be difficult to appreciate a bird like a house sparrow that lacks the bright white of a mute swan or the iridescence of a male starling’s spring plumage. However, in their own way, house sparrows offer a nature lover the chance to get acquainted with a rich palette of earthy tones.

I would be willing to bet my left knee cap that the color brown is easily one of the most described colors in biology. What other color would offer names for North American birds like cinnamon teal (Spatula cyanoptera), rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), buff-breasted sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis), chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), and, yes even “plain Jane” names like brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), and brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater).

Now, after having overused the word “brown” so that it sounds funny in your head when you next go to think about it, consider the colors of the male house sparrow. What are some other words for “brown” that you could use to describe it? What other colors can you see in the plumage? I would love to hear about those combinations in the comments below.

A male house sparrow surveys the scene on a farm in Albion, Maine. Photo by author.

Putting it All Together

I believe that people should appreciate what these birds can offer us, both as a chance to watch their habits and learn why they might be problematic, but also so we can appreciate what we might be ignoring by focusing on where they came from originally. Without a doubt, the sparrows, starlings, and swans introduced to this country a century or so ago are established, naturalised, and here to stay and that statement will no doubt, ruffle a few feathers. The wildlife that is displaced by these invaders are no doubt appreciated by many more people now than the swans, sparrows, and starlings themselves even when they were introduced. However, it’s important to remember that the latter have their admirers as well.

In her most recent book Mozart’s Starling, Lyanda Lynn Haupt wrote about the three year relationship shared between the legendary musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his pet starling and how the bird might have influenced the composer’s music, life, and appreciation for the world. The bird certainly left an impression as Haupt notes that Mozart gave it a lavish funeral upon it’s death, mourning his lost pet over the death of his father some time later. As if that wasn’t fascinating enough, Haupt take on the task of caring for and raising a starling chick to learn more about one of the most hated birds in North America. If you appreciate learning about the history of one of the western worlds most lauded composers through the eyes of a common songbird, then this book is the one for you.

If you would like to contribute other ideas to this discussion about the merits of non-native birds, you can leave a comment below or share on social media to discuss this with your friends and subscribers.

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