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Blane Klemek column: European starlings are successful competitors

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Blane Klemek column: European starlings are successful competitors
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Many years ago when I was employed as the manager of Wetlands, Pines and Audubon Sanctuary, a wildlife refuge and environ-mental education center near Warren, Minn., some of my duties included building, installing, monitoring, and maintaining bluebird and wood duck nest boxes. I especially enjoyed monitoring the structures to see if any boxes were occupied by nesting birds, squirrels, raptors or what have you.

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On a particularly memorable spring day while checking wood duck houses, there turned out to be one nest box that was different from all the rest. From the outside, I could see long stems of grass draped over the entrance hole and hanging along the front of the box. After I had climbed up the tree and opened the box, I discovered it was stuffed full of grasses and herbaceous stems.

I had first thought it was a fox squirrel nest, yet there appeared to be a bowl, a depression of sorts, within the vegetation that resembled that from a bird, not a squirrel. So, everyday I checked the box to see what mystery animal had moved in.

One day, I was delighted to discover that the occupant was indeed a bird. There was a single egg in the nest bowl. The egg was bluish in color, much smaller than a duck's, but larger than a bluebird's. I wondered what kind of bird it was.

The next day, and for several days following, I continued to monitor the box. Four days after the initial discovery of the lone egg, there were five eggs in all. By this time my curiosity was high, for I had yet to learn the species of the bird that had stuffed the box full of vegetation and laid the eggs.

Flicker? No, they don't carry nesting material into their cavities. Owl? No, they don't build nests. American kestrel? Possibly, but I wasn't sure at the time the kind of nesting material they use. Great crested flycatcher? Again, possibly, but still, I was at a loss.

I eventually found out, though. After tapping on the box one day, the squatter inside the house emerged and flew to a nearby tree. At last, the case of the mystery bird was solved. However, its identity had never even entered my mind as a possibility. In fact, I'll have to admit, I was somewhat disappointed. You see, the bird responsible for all my attention was none other than the European starling - in a wood duck box!

To imagine that the prolific starlings of today's North America - approximately 200 million in all - began their expansion across the continent from a mere 100 birds that were released into New York City's Central Park in the late 1890s is, well, "startling."

Moreover, I recently read that European starlings are becoming more common in Alaska now. For instance, during the 2004-2005 National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count in Anchorage, Alaska, 35 starlings were observed there. By 2008-2009, that number had increased to 170 starlings. In 1994-1995, zero starlings were counted in the city.

Even though starlings look like blackbirds, they are not related. The birds belong to different families (starlings belong to the family Sturnidae). A medium-sized bird of about 8.5 inches long with a short tail and pointed triangular wings, an observer might misidentify starlings in flight for meadowlarks or waxwings instead; their flight pattern is quite similar to the latter species. But most similarities stop there.

Starlings are well known for their close association with human dwellings and otherwise human-altered habitats. They frequently are observed feeding and roosting in large flocks on farmsteads and urban centers alike.

Vocalizations are not especially loud, but unusual and varied. Variable whistles, rattles, hisses, gurgles, chatters and other weird noises are blended together to produce very curious and uncommon sounds.

Close inspection of the breeding plumage of starlings reveals a rather colorful arrangement, albeit difficult to distinguish from a distance. Iridescent feathers show off purples, greens and blacks with some white speckling and a bright yellow bill. Yet in spite of several unique features, a behavioral quality makes the starling a not-so-desirable species of bird to not only people, but also to such birds as bluebirds and woodpeckers.

European starlings are notorious competitors. As cavity nesters not fussy about where and what kind of cavity they nest in, starlings will often displace native birds from artificial bird houses and natural tree cavities or woodpecker holes - not good for bluebirds, purple martins, or flickers, but good for starlings.

Still, you really can't blame starlings for being what they are. They're tough, year-around resident birds that obviously are survivors and are here to stay. Yet if anyone should be held responsible, then let us blame those Shakespearian romantics of the 19th century.

It turns out that a society dedicated to introducing to America all of the birds ever mentioned in William Shakespeare's works were the people who released those original 100 starlings in New York City.

That said, and though considered by law as one of three unprotected birds in Minnesota, if not the United States - house sparrows and pigeons are the other two species - it's probably appropriate to refer to starlings as resident birds. Thus, it's likely you'll observe a small flock from time to time at your wintertime feeding station, or, as I did, inside one of your artificial nest boxes someday.

Until next week, be sure to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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