BIRD COLUMN FOR December 14, 2003
By Benjamin P. Burtt
We will start this column with a question from a reader about the flocking of starlings and grackles. Then we will cover some of the reasons people hate starlings and then some of the useful, interesting and beneficial things about this bird.
Question : Dear Ben:
I saw a large flock of grackles) heading directly east on August 10. Were they starting their fall migration?
I also saw large flocks of starlings in August. Does that early migration mean that we will have a cold winter? --B.R. by email.
CAPTION: Starlings travel about in flocks and hundreds may show up in our backyard as these did at David Ferros home in Auburn. Is flocking of benefit to birds? With many birds in a flock, it is more likely that danger will be spotted and that food will be found. Both of these are of benefit to the species. ( Photo courtesy of David Ferro.)
Dear B.R.: As for the flocks of grackles moving in a given direction in early August, that was not migration. Grackles never start their migration until late October.
Each species migrates at the same time every year to within a week. The timing is governed by their hormones which in turn are stimulated by the shortening of the daylight hours in the fall. The date they start to migrate is not due to a lack of food, nor to some sense that the winter will be severe. It depends on the sun and that does not change.
It is quite normal for starlings and grackles to gather into flocks after the nesting season is over. Each species gathers into its own flock to forage for food and especially to roost together with their own kind at night.
Usually they choose a certain patch of woods. Sometimes starlings roost on buildings. In the 1960s, thousands made a terrible mess each night in down town Syracuse.
Both species start towards their roost at a time that allows them to reach the spot before dark.
In your case, the grackle roost was located east of your home and perhaps 10 miles away. People who live east of that roost would observe the birds flying west in the late afternoon. Those living south of the roost would see grackles flying north.
The History of the starling in the United States
As for the starling, we have them all through the year. They do migrate in a south westerly direction, but others move in from the north so we do not notice any change.
Among certain birds, this habit of roosting or traveling about in flocks is common. In a flock there are more eyes to watch for danger or to find food.
Starlings are birds that are native to Europe and there were none in this country when the Europeans first came here. Now, there is one starling for every U.S. citizen.
This bird was brought here for what might be called cultural reasons. In March 1890, 60 starlings were released in New York City's Central Park by a group who planned to introduce all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare. More were released the next year, and the birds bred and increased their population.
They appeared in Connecticut and New Jersey in 1904, reached Pennsylvania in 1908 and crossed the Allegheny Mountains in 1916. They were in Ohio in 1924, and eventually reached the West Coast by 1942.
Problems with starlings
Wherever they went, they took over the nesting holes that normally would be used by such birds as flickers, great crested flycatchers and bluebirds. Being very aggressive, starlings drove away the other species. The native birds we prefer were not able to nest successfully.
Most people look on them as a nuisance for when they roost together in large numbers, their droppings contaminate the surroundings.
Two redeeming features of starlings
First, they are great eaters of insects and grubs. Secondly and less known is their ability to sing and imitate the songs of other birds and even human speech.
Generally, when we observe a group of starlings sitting in a tree, all we hear are squeaks, chatters, creaking rattles, chirps and wheezy notes, none of which are pleasant to the ear.
Now and then, we may hear some long and drawn-out cheerful whistles which are almost human-like and easily imitated. Young starlings have harsh, rasping, insistent calls as they request the adults to bring them food.
The birds mimicking ability was studied for 10 years by Dr. Meredith West, and Dr. Andrew King at Indiana University. The starling can imitate cats meowing, roosters crowing, babies crying, water running, horns honking, doors squeaking and even hammers hammering.
They can also imitate human sounds, including words and whistled versions of songs.
According to Dr. West, not only do starlings mimic sounds, but they can also string together various sounds into what she describes as "song soliloquies", that is as if it was singing to itself. Some of these included human speech interwoven among others sounds.
The birds can also re-create strings of connected events. They have, for example, imitated an alarm clock ringing, followed by imitations of clinking dishes and of people talking. Another one mimicked the barking of a dog, followed by the sound of a door opening and closing, followed by a voice saying, "Hello!"
Dr. West believes that starlings give back sounds from their environment, perhaps as a means of testing or probing the reactions of people or other creatures around them.
Sometimes their utterances are comical. She cited one case in which a starling exclaimed, "I have a question," as its claws were being clipped. Another got tangled in a Venetian blind cord and started shrieking, "basic research" over and over.
Yet another would utter a sniffling sound and say "hi." This apparently was the mannerism of the person who took care of the bird and had an allergy which caused them to sniff frequently.
Dr. West said that all of the starlings she and Dr. King have studied show an interest in music or whistling. She said they often produce rambling whistled tunes made up of songs that have previously been whistled or sung to them, "intermingled with whistles of unknown origin and other sounds."
One starling would start whistling "rock a bye baby," then switch to "The William Tell Overture? and go back and forth between the two.
People in the 18th century knew about the singing and mimicking ability of starlings. They trained them as musical birds and kept them as pets.
Mozart’s Pet starling
The Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had an interesting experience with a pet starling. He kept a diary of the money he spent, and on May 27, 1784, he made an entry that he had purchased a pet starling. He also wrote that the bird whistled 17 notes of a musical score that he had completed about six weeks earlier, even though the work had not yet been played in public.
The 17 notes appear in the final movement of his Piano Concerto in G Major. This startled and worried Mozart, because he had just sent a copy of his work to his father as insurance against someone stealing it and claiming it for their own. In those days, when there where no copyright laws, others would try to steal the works of famous composers.
A day after he sent the concerto to his father, he walked into a pet store and heard a starling whistling notes from his new concertos final movement! So he did what any new creator would do, - he bought the bird.
Drs. West and King suggest that Mozart had visited that pet shop and other pet shops earlier. Being the inveterate whistler that he was, he probably gave the notes away long before the concerto was played publicly.
Early in this century, North American Ornithologists wrote about the mimicking ability of starlings as the bird began to populate this country. The bird so often imitated the notes of the wood pewee that some New England ornithologists thought that it was the natural call of the starling.
But it was later learned that in England the note was not used by the starling. There are no pewees there. As the cowbird became more abundant here, its calls were often imitated by the starling.
Francis H. Allen, writing early in the about 1910, suggested that the starlings learned many of their imitations from other starlings. He observed trends in their singing. For several years, they imitated pewees and then they shifted to cowbirds.
More than 50 species of birds have been listed as imitated by the starling.
Not all starlings are imitators, and some never seem to indulge in the habit. When you next encounter a flock of starlings, stop to listen. I doubt if you will hear the Piano Concerto in G Major, but you may hear some interesting imitations.
Coming December 28: The birds that were visiting feeders in early December and the results of the December Feeder Survey.
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