Birding while driving is never a good idea, but while flocks of starlings wheel and twist over the highway, I give them a quick glance. When the flock is behaving this way, I suspect there’s a hawk nearby. Here it is, a red-tail, high and outside. As I leave the highway, I see another flock gathering, preparing to roost in the neighborhood. Blocks away, I arrive at my destination, still hearing the cacophony of chatters and whistles.
At one point, some called European Starlings the most abundant bird in North America. It wasn’t always so. The Acclimatization Society of New York, NY, is responsible for turning them loose on this continent in 1890. Their stated goal was to introduce to North America all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare. Henry IV, Part I is play responsible. The character Hotspur, furious at the King over his refusal to ransom Hotspur’s brother-in-law Mortimer, raves that he’ll train a starling to say “Mortimer” and give it to the King as a gift. It’s a good idea. Starlings are great mimics, as befits a member of the myna family, as this video shows.
|Cooper's Hawk with flock of European Starlings|
photo by zen Sutherland
European Starlings are aggressive, noisy cavity nesters. In winter, they like to roost with about 999 of their closest pals. This has not endeared them to human communities. If you have to endure these gatherings, Cornell has some advice for you, and best of luck.
In 1960, Eastern Airlines flight 375 took off from Boston and struck a flock of starlings. The crash killed 62 people, the worst accident caused by bird strike on an aircraft. We blamed them too for the decline of bluebirds. Starlings have become of the most despised of all winged creatures—right up there with mosquitoes. Recent studies, however, have failed to turn up evidence that starlings have had any negative effect on any North American species, except the sapsucker.Our relationship with the starling may be an uneasy one, but that doesn’t diminish our fascination with those amazing flocks. An article in Wired Science, June 2010 explains their behavior as “synchronized orientation…in a critical system,” meaning that members of the flock can communicate so well that if a single bird turns, the flock of thousands can follow. The behavior dazzles humans, as well as avian predators.