Like a dog, like a frog, like a … starling?
By Linda Weiford, WSU News
PULLMAN, Wash. – Did you hear the police siren wailing from a nearby treetop? How about the barking dog from a power line? Chances are you heard a common starling, a bird that’s making plenty of noise this time of year – not only in the Pacific Northwest but every state in the country.
Besides mimicking other bird species, starlings imitate everything from car alarms and coyotes to human speech – a remarkable ability that’s most evident in the springtime as they attract mates and defend territories, said Washington State University wildlife ecologist Rodney Sayler, whose research includes avian behavior.
With an estimated 200 million starlings in North America, they are among the most widespread and successful wild birds on the continent, he said.
Deception, location … and fun
“Starlings are accomplished mimics. They pick up sounds from other starlings and song birds but also from people and inanimate objects,” he explained.
Their vocalizations include whistles, whizzes, rattles and pops. But it’s the barks, child squeals, frog rib-bits and car horns that stump humans the most.
“How and why starlings incorporate such an elaborate repertoire of sounds into their vocal behavior has been the subject of a lot of research, with no single answer,” said Sayler, adding that it appears to be a complex interaction used to deceive, identify their whereabouts, keep rivals at bay and impress potential mates.
Then again, some scientists contend the birds imitate for no other reason than because it’s fun, according to research literature.
Not as dark as portrayed
Despite their lowly reputation for bullying other bird species and devouring fruit crops, “starlings have positive traits that tend to get overlooked,” said Sayler. Besides their seeming intelligence, they eat cutworms, the larvae of crane flies – called leather jackets – and other pests. They are highly adaptable. And they are picturesque when seen up close.
“They have this beautiful iridescent plumage speckled in white. I don’t think a lot of people realize this,” he said.
And finally, as protection against predators, hundreds and even thousands of starlings will wheel about the sky like a dark liquid mass because there’s safety in numbers.
Noble gesture gone right or wrong?
Surprisingly, starlings are transplants brought to this country on a lark. In 1890, a German immigrant released 100 common, or European, starlings into New York’s Central Park as a way to introduce bird species penned in Shakespeare’s works.
By the mid-1940s, the birds were turning up in the Pacific Northwest, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Presumably the starlings could be genetically linked to the 1890 Central Park introduction, the agency says.
More than 125 years after starlings were released on this continent, the enormity of their success and adaptability is all around us, said Sayler.
Rod Sayler, WSU wildlife ecologist, 509-335-6167, firstname.lastname@example.org
Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209, email@example.com