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Starling: the bird profiles

Ever wondered which birds perform those amazing flight displays in enormous flocks? Here’s everything you should know about the starling.

 A starling carries nesting material in flight
The common starling is one of the most common birds in the world [Photo: Victor Tyakht/ Shutterstock.com]

The common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is common in the truest sense of the word. It is not only a frequent visitor of parks and gardens, but also one of the most widespread bird species in the world. Its shimmering plumage, large song repertoire, and elegant flock formations make this songbird singularly fascinating. Unfortunately, however, the starling population has declined sharply for several decades due to the intensification of agriculture and use of pesticides, leading to habitat loss and the destruction of the starling’s food supply. Read on to find out more about this unique bird, and how you can help protect it.

Starling: key facts

SizeAbout 21-22cm
WeightAbout 70-90g
Breeding seasonMarch-June
LifespanApproximately 3 years
HabitatGrassland or lawns with tall trees
Food preferencesWorms, spiders, insects
ThreatsAgricultural intensification and pesticide use

How to recognise the starling

A starling’s appearance depends on the light. From a distance and in shady places, starlings appear black with a yellow beak, and are easily mistaken for blackbirds. If you peer a little closer, however, you will notice that the starling’s plumage is covered with white speckles and shimmers in the sun with a metallic green, blue and violet. What’s more, starlings are rather short-tailed and don’t display the typical hopping behaviour of the blackbird. In flight, you can identify a starling by its pointed wings.

In fact, starlings change their appearance seasonally. In spring, you’ll see black feathers, shimmering with pale, light speckles, with the top of their beak shining yellow. In winter, starlings are greyish-brown, with strong, bright speckles, and a dark beak. 

A starling shows its speckled plumage in snow
The starling is hardly restrained during winter [Photo: xpixel/ Shutterstock.com]

How to recognise a young starling

Young starlings are far less ostentatious than their parents. Starling chicks who have left the nest are already the size and shape of an adult bird. Their beaks are long and pointed, with a dark colour that matches their plain, grey-brown plumage. They are, in effect, monochromatic. This all changes, however, as young starlings quickly mature, and show off bright speckles just like their parents by winter.

A young starling perches
A young starling’s appearance is not as loud as its parents’

How to recognise a starling egg

Female starlings lay between four and eight plain, light green-blue eggs per clutch. The eggs are around 3cm in size and lie in loose nests of dry stalks, leaves and roots, which are padded with fresh greenery, feathers and animal hair. Starlings also like to weave their nests with herbs, whose essential oils serve as a natural defence against mites and bacteria – great for raising their chicks!

How to tell the difference between male and female starlings

The difference between males and females is visible in the plumage and beak. While the male’s plumage has a dark, metallic shine, a female’s has only a few bright spots. Moreover, females have plain yellow beaks, the lower half of which is slightly lighter. The lower half of a male’s beak, however, is a clear grey-blue. 

A female starling
The beak of the female is completely yellow

What is the perfect habitat for starlings?

Starlings can be found across Europe and Asia, and even as far as north-west Mongolia. Starlings were also introduced to North America, where they populate almost the entire continent, small parts of South Africa, South Australia and New Zealand. Starlings are present across a wide range of semi-open habitats: light forests, urban parks, villages and even city centres. The most important thing for starlings is access to short grass for foraging and trees with hollows or other nesting sites.

Where do starlings build their nests?

Starlings prefer to build their nests in natural tree hollows. Because of urbanisation, however, they have to make do with other hollow-like structures, such as building cavities or bird boxes. Males begin constructing nests in order to attract a female. If he finds a partner, they will finish the nest together.

When is the breeding season for starlings?

The females lay their eggs in mid-to-late April. Incubation lasts 11 to 13 days. After hatching, the young birds develop in their nests for three weeks and are fed by their parents around the clock. Even after leaving the nest, the young starlings will still have the support of their parents for some time. Although females usually only raise one clutch per season, males often look for a second partner. 

A starling chick pokes its head from the nest awaiting food from the parent
Starlings are breed in hollows and cavities [Photo: Martin Mecnarowski/ Shutterstock.com]

Where do starlings spend winter?

UK starlings tend not to migrate – spending winter at home. Although starlings breed in pairs, they spend much of their time in large flocks, which can have several thousand members. They are especially known for their synchronized flight manoeuvres, called murmurations, which create spell-binding formations and patterns in the sky.

A starling murmuration
A starling murmuration is incredible sight to behold [Photo: Albert Beukhof/ Shutterstock.com]

What does a starling’s song sound like?

Starlings are very creative singers. Their songs consist of loud, stretched whistles, chattering, and a number of imitations. That’s right: starlings mimic the sounds around them! This is often the voices of other birds, such as magpies or birds of prey, but they have been known to copy the sound of a ringing mobile phone. There are many more sounds we could speak of, but one you may here is the starling’s hoarse warning call from its nest.

Help the starling!

The progressive loss of habitat, food and nesting sites means that starlings are increasingly dependent on our support. The more urban parks and gardens, and the less intensive agriculture, the better. If you would like to help starlings even more, and offer the native songbirds a home in your own garden, look no further.

What do starlings eat?

Starlings feed mainly on worms, spiders, insects and snails, which they look for in short grass. However, they are also partial to berries, fruits and seeds – a real omnivore. If you would like to feed starlings in winter, you do not need to buy any special food. Starlings enjoy standard fruit and nut mixes.

If possible, food should be protected from rain and difficult for birds to sit in, so that they don’t contaminate the food with their own excrement. Further tips on building, installing and cleaning a bird feeder can be found in our article “Build your own bird feeder”.

Which birdhouses are suitable for starlings?

Starlings prefer bird boxes with a small, round entrance hole, about 45mm in diameter. These artificial birdhouses are loved by starlings, so it’s really worthwhile to install one. Find everything you need to know about building a birdhouse for yourself, including a step-by-step guide in our article “Build your own birdhouse”.

A starling chick pokes its head from a birdhouse awaiting food from its parent
Bird boxes for starlings should have an entrance hole, about 45mm in diameter [Photo: Tobyphotos/ Shutterstock.com]

How can I support starlings even more?

If you want to provide enough food for starlings in summer as well as in winter, be sure to support the natural insect and small animal populations in your garden. This requires bird-friendly plants and healthy soil. Since starlings like to search the ground for worms and other small animals, a thriving ground fauna is vital.

You can also help out starlings on a hot day with a simple bird bath; a small bowl will do. Bird baths are loved by all garden birds, such as the blackcap or the chiffchaff, so give it a go!

Hannah

I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.
Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans