Pest Profiles: European/Common Starling

Pest Control: European/Common StarlingAir rifles are perfect for getting rid of unwanted vermin around your property, and among the pest species that most often drive people to purchase an air rifle for this purpose is the Common or European starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

Despite being so unpopular, this is a seemingly innocuous, roughly 8-9 inch long bird belonging to the “song bird” family Passeriformes. But it’s not individually that they are the problem.

Originally native to Eurasia, the starling has been introduced all over the world and is now widespread throughout the northern hemisphere, where it is widely considered to be a public nuisance, major threat to native hole-nesting birds, and costly agricultural pest.

But before you go grabbing your airgun, let’s take a moment to “know thy enemy.”

Identification & Superficial Characteristics

Unlike some non-native sparrows, identifying this species is easy.

Immature common starling

Adults sport characteristic iridescent black plumage that becomes flecked with white, especially during winter. Juveniles are by comparison a uniform grayish brown. The adults’ beak color changes during the year; it starts as yellowish in summer and fades to a darker grey/black in winter.

Although there are many subtle differences between them, the sexes can be distinguished most reliably by their eye color; the irises of males are a deep brownish, while those of the females are comparatively lighter, almost grayish.

General Biology

Social Behavior

Starlings are a gregarious bunch, and typically roost in large noisy groups. This communal behavior is believed to function as a defense against attack by natural avian predators, such as various hawks and falcon species. Likewise, when taking flight in response to an aerial threat, the flock moves together in a tight mass that seems to pulse and change direction randomly, much like a shoal of fleeing bait fish.

Flock sizes vary, with some of the largest witnessed in Denmark, where over a million birds may congregate in spring. Huge flocks of up to 50 thousand birds are also common in the UK during sunset in winter. The sight of so many starlings in flight is so spectacular that there is a specific name for it: they are called “murmurations.”

Watch below as a peregrine falcon repeatedly dive-bombs one such elusive murmuration in Torino, Italy.

 

Nesting & Reproduction

Starlings construct nests in cavities within trees, stumps or in man-made structures, such as walls, buildings and bird houses.

Typical clutch of 5 starling eggs

The male prepares a fairly “messy” nest that seems to require some vegetation and the addition of herb/decorative material as an attractant to entice a female.

After copulation, the female typically deposits 4 or 5 eggs that require approximately two weeks of incubation before hatching. A pair may breed twice between the spring and summer months if conditions are favorable and/or if the first clutch fails for some reason.

Once hatched, the young remain in the nest for another three weeks before venturing out.

Diet & Foraging Behavior

Starlings are most fond of small invertebrates, but also consume seeds and fruit when available. They are often seen probing the ground in search of food in open, closely-cropped grassland areas, including cattle grazing lands, where they may forage in large flocks on the ground and sometimes on the back of cattle.

A flock of Common Starlings foraging in a cattle pasture in Northern Ireland.

Preferred Habitats

Common starlings are strongly associated with urban or suburban settings that afford abundant nesting and roosting areas, particularly where these are coincide with grasslands, farmlands, cattle pastures, sports fields or anywhere else grasses are closely-cropped. They are rarely found in densely wooded environs.

They are extremely versatile in terms of elevation preference, and can thrive along coastal areas and inland up to 6,200 feet in elevation.

Origin & Current Distribution

Distribution of Sturnis vulgaris, the common or European starling

Distribution of Common Starling (hover over image for color key)

While the common starling and its various subspecies are native to Europe and western Asia, the species has been introduced to many locales, most often with the intent to combat some agricultural insect pest.

In North America, however, their introduction was motivated by a far less practical reason. In 1890, 60 birds were released in New York’s Central Park at the behest of the “American Acclimatization Society,” which endeavored to introduce all of the birds referenced in William Shakespeare’s plays to the United States. These 60 birds, released by ignorant, overzealous literary historians, are now responsible for a growing population estimated to consist of 150 million birds, roughly half of all of the starlings alive on earth.

As we discuss below, North America has suffered greatly from the Society’s misplaced romanticism, and has caused the US government to spend approximately $1.7 million in eradication efforts in 2008 alone.

Impacts & Threats From the Common Starling

So what’s the big deal? Why be concerned about starlings at all?

Starlings will often oust native birds that prefer nesting in natural tree cavities.Displacement of Native Species

The starling’s preference for using just about any type of nest cavity impacts native species through direct competition for nest holes. This is an issue just about everywhere they have been introduced, with many native North American species affected; these include woodpeckers, martins, swallows, chickadees and nuthatches, to name a few.

Indeed, the starling’s reputation for ousting native birds and its extremely adaptable nature has awarded it an infamous spot on the IUCN’s List of the world’s top 100 worst invasive species.

Agricultural Losses

Beyond threatening native birds, the starling is also responsible for heavy economic losses. Their ubiquity and omnivorous nature makes them a scourge in various agricultural settings.

Starlings impact commercial fruit and vegetable production by eating products directly, or consuming/uprooting newly-planted seeds or seedlings. In addition, their foraging around livestock areas and spread of seed-laden droppings are believed to facilitate the spread of noxious weeds, which indirectly compromises the efficacy of agricultural practices.

Overall, the starling is blamed for economic losses in the US totaling approximately $800 million annually.

Public Health & Property Damage

The sheer number of these birds can create a variety of threats and problems, particularly in areas that provide optimum foraging and nesting habitats.

The large amount of droppings left by flocks present a safety issue because they are capable of harboring a variety of infectious diseases, the most notable of which being the pathogenic fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, the cause of histoplasmosis in humans.

Starlings congregating on some powerlines in France.Another safety concern is with respect to air travel. While just about any bird can potentially be sucked into an airliner’s engine, the large numbers of starlings in some flocks can be particularly dangerous. Think this is far-fetched? In 1960, one of the most disastrous mid-air strikes occurred; 62 people died when a turbo-prop plane passed through a flock of starlings and ultimately crashed into the ocean off of the coast of Boston, Massachusetts.

Finally, the presence of large, roosting colonies can create substantial noise disturbance in urban areas, along with noxious odors from the collective effect of hundreds or thousands of birds’ feces. The accumulation of large amounts of droppings can also cause substantial aesthetic damage to dwellings and other property that may be costly to repair, even if such roosting behavior is temporary and the property owner is successful in encouraging the flock to congregate elsewhere.

Controlling Starlings with an Air Rifle

Although they are a migratory species, due to their noxious, invasive nature, starlings are exempted from the protective ambit of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which otherwise levies stiff penalties for the taking or killing of migratory birds. Consequently, if otherwise following all other applicable state and local rules and regulations, a private land owner may take starlings at any time of the year without a permit.

Why Use an Air Rifle?

An air rifle makes an ideal weapon to combat starlings that congregate around the home.

Unlike using poisons or traps, which can inadvertently harm native species, an air rifle can kill with precision and no collateral damage to native wildlife. Further, unlike conventional firearms, a pellet rifle has the added benefits of generating less noise and having a much more limited projectile range, which greatly minimizes the potential for dangerous stray shots. As always, even when using an airgun, make sure that you can shoot safely and that you are complying with all applicable rules and regulations within your jurisdiction.

Choosing a Pellet Rifle for Starling Eradication

As far as which type of air rifle to use, all of the hunting air rifles mentioned on this site will do the job well, and our best-value picks (in our opinion) provide the highest level of quality and performance for the money. But whatever you do, do not use a BB gun. These are often highly inaccurate and are more likely to injure a bird, rather than kill it. Even though starlings may be pests – just like any small game animal – they at the very least deserve to be put down quickly and humanely.

Having said that, here are some things to consider when shopping for an air rifle:

  • Power Plant / Cocking Effort. More important than the brand of the rifle is user preference and convenience. For example, if you are a female, younger or very slightly-built user, a good multi-pump pneumatic pellet rifle may be preferable over a powerful spring or gas-piston rifle that may be difficult to cock. Likewise, if you have large numbers of birds on your property and want something that affords repeat/faster shooting, then PCP or certain elite CO2 rifles, such as very powerful the Hammerli 850 AirMagnum, may be worth considering.
  • Which Air Rifle Caliber? If you are using the air rifle to take primarily starlings and other small non-native bird pests, you don’t need much “stopping power” and a .177 caliber rifle is just as effective as a .22 model. In fact, to the extent you are looking for easier, longer-range shooting, the .177 may be a better choice, especially for relatively inexperienced shooters, due to its relatively flatter flight trajectory and less need for range finding. Just remember to use quality air rifle pellets and keep pellet velocities at or below 1000 fps to avoid breaking the sound barrier. If you don’t understand why this matters, make sure to review our general buying guide and article on air rifle hunting for some basic tips and information.
  • Pellet Type. Any pellet that you can consistently shoot accurately is a good choice. However, depending on your rifle’s power and caliber, you may want to opt for one type over another. To get a better idea of your options, check out our general information article on selecting pellets.
  • Do You Need a Scope? The open sights on most quality air rifles are probably sufficient for shooting at closer ranges, but when you start engaging starlings at much beyond 25 yards, your results will be greatly aided by the assistance of a quality air rifle scope (if you are not already buying a good “combo” with a scope included). Scopes in general can be a confusing subject, so we created a detailed introductory guide to put you in the right direction before buying.

Where to Hunt Starlings?

Starlings can often be encountered foraging out in the open, and may be taken as they attempt to make use of nest-holes or as they harass or try to oust native birds from existing nesting cavities.

Male starling in the act of vocalizationAnd while you are unlikely to get off a second shot in a flock situation as they startle easily, the noise and disturbance created by an air rifle is likely to help discourage frequent use of your property, which is the whole point after all.

Again, as we’ve said before, obey all applicable laws and common sense, and always be conservative with your shots when possible.

Finally, don’t get cocky: taking game at great distances may boost your ego, but attempting to do so is more often than not likely to result in a miss or merely wounding a bird, which in turn causes needles suffering.

We strongly suggest that you only take shots at distances where you are able to consistently achieve a 1″ group (or smaller) during target practice.

Sources:

Source 1

Source 2

Source 3

Image Credits:

By PierreSelim under CC-BY-SA-3.0

By Garry Knight under CC-BY-SA-2.0

By Mike R under CC-BY-SA-2.0

By MPF under CC-BY-SA-3.0

By jans canon under CC-BY-2.0

By Lamiot under CC-BY-3.0

By David Corby under CC-BY-3.0

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