Thursday, 21 March 2013

Ah, well then, it’s a Starling.

by Derek Onley

Starlings don't get noticed much but there are three times of year when they do. One is in November, when the young ones are screeching for food from their nest at about 5:30am in the roof somewhere above your bed. The other two times they manage to threaten the reputation of ornithologists.

Late in the spring, when the flax is flowering a typical phone call might be:
"There's this funny bird in my garden. It's got an orange head."
"What's it doing?"
"Walking around on the lawn."
"Has it got a short tail?" I ask. "Yes."
"Ah, well then, it's a starling."
"I'm sure it's not."

In autumn:
"There's a funny brown bird in my plum tree. It's the colour of a thrush, but not spotty on its breast."
"What's it doing?"
"Pecking at the plums."
"Ah, well then, it's a juvenile starling." (Juveniles are not glossy black and spotty like their elders, but the colour of a flat white.)
"Can't possibly be!"

Starlings were introduced into New Zealand in 1862 and 1863 to eat grass grubs. In the 1970s the now defunct Department of Scientific and Industrial Research put up thousands of nest boxes on fence posts in Hawkes Bay to encourage them. Being scientists, they didn't put up thousands of nest boxes on other equally grass-grub-infested farms, in order to have "control sites" for comparison. I've never been so cold in my life as I was out there in a bleak, brown paddock checking the 879th nest box in early spring; a southerly howling in the barbed wire fences bringing snow low down on the hills inland. Fearing hypothermia we had to abandon the checks and retire to the truck to drink tea and heat up. Despite all the effort, the results were inconclusive.

Very few people would dream of encouraging starlings onto their properties nowadays. They are generally regarded as pests, or at least a nuisance. Orchardists and viticulturists – and a certain local community board member – hate them with a vengeance, so much so that shooters are sometimes employed to blast at them to protect their crops. (The community board member has considered this option.) One does wonder what else gets shot as flying bird identification skills are not usually up to much; bellbirds? Hopefully they spare the fantails. In Australia, where native birds threaten vineyard's livelihoods, owners are obliged to be less bloodthirsty and protect their crops with nets or other means.

Starlings are very sociable for much of the year, feeding and roosting in large flocks. I'm not sure who counted them but a million is often claimed for the roost in the Somerset Levels, where birds from all over Europe spend the winter in the balmy (relatively speaking) climate of Britain. In Blueskin Bay you may see a group of a hundred or so chattering away in the top of a tree in the evening before taking flight and heading off to join other tight flocks, all heading in the same direction. About ten years ago there was a roost of several thousand on Rabbit Island, but I haven't seen that lately and nothing approaching that nice round figure of one million has been reported in New Zealand.

In the breeding season they're a lot less sociable. Males roost in likely looking nest holes from late winter onwards, claiming them for the coming season. They perch nearby, flicking their wings while squeaking and whistling and embellishing their songs with imitations of oystercatchers, bellbirds, phones, weed eaters and if the Irish are to be believed, fairy music; all intended to show off to females and warn off other males. If the song is not deterrent enough they will resort to violence. There have been instances of males locked together, claws sunk into each other's flesh, unable to get apart as they fight over the better real estate. Females are a bit less belligerent but there's some suggestion that an errant few try to forego their maternal duties by laying their eggs in someone else's nest.

Starlings lay eggs in October or November. You might find a pale blue unspeckled egg lying on the ground around this time, apparently often due to the less maternalistic opportunists being thwarted by the legitimate nest owners. In Otago only a few birds manage two clutches a year. The young fledge around Christmas and gang together just in time to descend on your ripening plums and grapes.

It is such a common bird that it is hard to believe that in Britain starlings have decreased by 70% over the last few years. The main reason appears to be the decline in pastoral farming and the use of agricultural chemicals. Enjoy them while you can.

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