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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Observing Minnesota's resident European starlings

To imagine that the prolific and expansive population of starlings in North America — more than 200 million — began from a mere 100 birds that were released into New York City’s Central Park in the late 1890s is astounding.

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Even though starlings look like blackbirds, they are not related. Starlings belong to different family, Sturnidae, whereas blackbirds and their kin are members of the family Icteridae.
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For five days leading up to Thanksgiving Eve, I enjoyed traveling throughout southeastern Minnesota’s beautiful Bluff Country. The landscape of this area of Minnesota — the unglaciated “Driftless Area” as it is also called — is breathtakingly magnificent. The mountain-like topography covered with hardwoods and scattered conifers offers unworldly scenery at every turn of the region’s switchback roadways.

Working in the southeast corner of the state on account of assisting staff with chronic wasting disease surveillance duties, my job was to collect biological samples left by deer hunters at various sampling sites in several of the quaint towns of Fillmore and Houston counties. Communities that I visited included Rushford, Houston, Hokah, La Crescent, Caledonia, Spring Grove, Mabel, Choice and Bratsberg.

One collection site located at the Houston County Fairgrounds in Caledonia was surprisingly bustling with activity, long after the annual fair. The Historical Society buildings, which included a research facility, were busy every day with staff. As well, the outdoor pens where the resident deer and elk herd live, provided me with a glimpse each day of the animals’ daily activities. Townspeople also used the fairgrounds to walk their dogs.

So, too, were the comings and goings of the town’s resident wild birds — namely, at least this time of year, a large population of European starlings. Each day as I collected samples from the fairgrounds site, the pleasant songs of singing starlings filled the canopies of the fairground’s scattered trees. Until that moment, I had not realized just how delightful the vocalizations of starlings are.

To imagine that the prolific and expansive population of starlings in North America — more than 200 million — began from a mere 100 birds that were released into New York City’s Central Park in the late 1890s is astounding.

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Even though starlings look like blackbirds, they are not related. Starlings belong to a different family, Sturnidae, whereas blackbirds and their kin are members of the family Icteridae. 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, as their flight patterns are similar.

Starlings are well known for their close association with human dwellings and otherwise human-altered habitats — hence their attraction to the Houston County Fairgrounds, farmsteads, and cities and towns. They frequently are observed feeding and roosting in large flocks at both rural and urban sites.

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

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

European starlings are competitors for available nest sites, particularly cavities, both natural and artificial. As a cavity nester not fussy about where and what kind of cavity they nest in, starlings will often displace native birds from 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 are hardy, year-round 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 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 Minnesota birds (house sparrows and pigeons are the other two birds), it is probably appropriate to refer to starlings as resident birds, nonetheless. Thus, it is likely you will observe a small flock of European starlings from time to time at your wintertime bird feeding station, or, as I did, at a county fairground near you, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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Related Topics: BLANE KLEMEKNORTHLAND OUTDOORSOUTDOORS RECREATION
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