1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Starling

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STARLING (O. Eng. staer stearn, and sterlyng; Lat. sturnus; Fr. etourneau), a well-known bird about the size of a thrush; though at a distance it appears to be black, when near at hand its plumage is seen to be brightly shot with purple, green and steel-blue, most of the feathers when freshly grown being tipped with buff. These markings wear off in the course of the winter, and in the breeding season the bird is almost spotless. It is the Sturnus vulgaris of ornithologists.

A full description of the habits of the starling[1] is unnecessary in this place. A more engaging bird scarcely exists, for its familiarity during some months of the year gives opportunities for observing its ways that few others afford, while its varied song, its sprightly gestures, its glossy plumage, and, above all, its character as an insecticide—which last makes it the friend of the agriculturist and the grazier—render it an almost universal favourite. The worst that can be said of it is that it occasionally pilfers fruit, and, as it flocks to roost in autumn and winter among reed-beds, does considerable damage by breaking down the stems.[2] The congregations of starlings are indeed very marvellous, and no less than the aerial evolutions of the flocks, chiefly before settling for the night, have attracted attention from early times, being mentioned by Pliny (Hist. naturalis, x. 24) in the 1st century. The extraordinary precision with which the crowd, often numbering several hundreds, not to say thousands, of birds, wheels, closes, opens out, rises and descends, as if the whole body were a single living thing—all these movements being executed without a note or cry being uttered—must be seen to be appreciated, and may be seen repeatedly with pleasure. For a resident the starling is rather a late breeder. The nest is commonly placed in the hole of a tree or of a building, and its preparation is the work of some little time. The eggs, from 4 to 7 in number, are of a very pale blue, often tinged with green. As the young grow they become very noisy, and their parents, in their assiduous attendance, hardly less so, thus occasionally making themselves disagreeable in a quiet neighbourhood. The starling has a Wide range over Europe and Asia, reaching India; but examples from Kashmir, Persia and Armenia have been considered worthy of specific distinction, and the resident starling of the countries bordering the Mediterranean is generally regarded as a good species, and called S. unicolor from its unspotted plumage.

Of the many forms allied to the genus Sturnus, some of which have perhaps been needlessly separated therefrom, those known as Grackles (q.v.), are separately dealt with, and here we shall only notice one other, Pastor, containing a beautiful species P. roseus, the Rose-coloured Starling, which is not an unfrequent visitor to the British Islands. It is a bird of most irregular and erratic habits—a vast horde suddenly arriving at some place to which it may have hitherto been a stranger, and at once making a settlement there, leaving it wholly deserted as soon as the young are reared. This happened in the summer of 1875 at Villafranca, in the province of Verona, the castle of which was occupied in a single day by some 12,000 or 14,ooo birds of this species, as has been graphically told by Sig. de Betta (Atti del r. ist. veneto, 5th series, vol. ii.);[3] but similar instances have been before recorded—as in Bulgaria in 1867, near Smyrna in 1856, and near Odessa in 1844, to mention only some of which particulars have been published.[4]

  1. They are dwelt on at some length in Yarrell's British Birds, ed. 4, vol. ii. pp. 229-241.
  2. A most ridiculous and unfounded charge has been, however, more than once brought against it—that of destroying the eggs of skylarks. There is little real evidence of its sucking eggs, and much of its not doing so; while, to render the allegation still more absurd, it has been brought by a class of farmers who generally complain that skylarks themselves are highly injurious.
  3. A partial translation of this paper is given in the Zoologist for 1878, pp. 18–22.
  4. It is remarkable that on almost all of these occasions the locality pitched upon has been, either at the time or soon after, ravaged by locusts, which the birds greedily devour. Another fact worthy of attention is that they are often observed to affect trees or shrubs bearing rose-coloured flowers, as Nerium oleander and Robinia viscosa, among the blossoms of which they themselves may easily escape notice, for their plumage is rose-pink and black shot with blue.