Foam Lake Birding No. 131


No. 131

November has arrived and with it some late fall and winter birds. Just this past week we have seen Red Crossbills, Pine Siskins, a Northern Shrike and a Blue Jay. The jay has been hanging around the sunflower feeder for several days now providing me with some good photo opportunities which I took advantage of. I also got a shot of the shrike but was a bit disappointed in that it was a juvenile and not a sharply defined adult. The Red Crossbills "got away".

As I was trying to decide on this week's topic and idly thinking about different birding events in the past, I happened to recall a statement made by a very interested but novice birder at one of my birding presentations. He maintained that some Purple Martins had come to his yard and proceeded to throw out young House Sparrows from their houses. I found this completely out of character for Purple Martins but had no explanation for it at the time. Sometime after that it dawned on me what had probably happened. A close lookalike, the aggressive European Starling, was probably the culprit that did the ejecting of the young sparrows and not the Purple Martin. With careful observation the differences between the two are quite noticeable, but a casual glance at a starling, especially one in flight, often results in it being misidentified as a Purple Martin.

The European Starling belongs to a family of birds that is confined to the old world and has no native counterparts in the Americas. Sixty starlings were introduced by the English in 1890-91 to Central Park in New York City and now number 200 million in the US alone. One of the major supporters and active participants of this effort was a literary society dedicated to Shakespeare that wanted to introduce every bird to North America that was mentioned in Shakespeare's literary works. It was successful with two: the starling and House Sparrow. Fortunately, other attempts failed.

The starling is a dark, stubby tailed sparrow-sized bird with a longish needle-like bill. (The bill shape is the easiest way to distinguish the starling from the stubby-billed Purple Martin). During the breeding season the male moults from brown to a shiny black that in good light reflects blue and purple making the bird quite attractive. A rather rare characteristic is that the bill also changes colour. During the breeding season it is yellow and then black the rest of the year.

The bill is unique in another way that is very interesting but of no value in identifying the bird in the field. The jaw muscles of most birds work to clamp the bill shut with a lot of force. Large parrots, for example, have reportedly snapped a broom handle in two. The jaw muscles of the starling work in reverse. Although they do work to clamp the bill shut most of the muscles' power is used to snap the bill open. This feature allows the starling to pry its closed bill into dense leaf litter or tangled grass then snap the bill open parting the leaves or grass and exposing insects, worms, spiders and so on. In addition, it has the unique ability to rotate its eyes forward giving it binocular vision with which to zero in on its prey more accurately. Remarkable.

The starling is found over all of North America save for the tundra. It is essentially non migratory but our harsh winters are a bit much so it does migrate to the southern parts of Canada and the northern US. In our area the starling is really only a summer resident but some birds do winter over in our larger cities where the micro climate provides a little more warmth. In any case, starlings are not as numerous here as in the more moderate climates like those found in the US

This week's photo of a spring male was taken at Llano Grande nature preserve in Weslaco, TX. It had just taken a bath so it looks quite shaggy.