We had a trio of unexpected visitors to the feeders yesterday: European Starlings. We haven’t had very many starlings here in the year and a half since we moved in. For the most part, starlings aren’t really rural birds, except when they’re associated with farms, usually livestock. I’m not sure what it is that they need, exactly, since there are not only ample nest sites but also an abundance of insects around our house, but it’s seemed to me that starlings need something produced by the large-scale disturbance of cities or farms. It’s rare to encounter them elsewhere.
Even where they breed in rural settings, they don’t always spend the winter. The starling population through much of Canada is migratory, with only those associated with cities or the most southern regions sticking it out year-round. On the hobby farm where I grew up there were three pairs of starlings that nested every year in the eaves of the house and garage. Every autumn they’d leave, but every March, like clockwork, they’d return and take up residence in the same cavities. There were a few months in between where we wouldn’t see them at all.
Despite the fact that I did actually live in town for several years during and immediately after university, I don’t think I ever paid close attention to the urban starlings in winter; and in the rural settings I’ve lived, they just haven’t been around to observe. I find it somewhat surprising that we had these three turn up here during a period when I think of the birds as having flown south, or at least into town. On the other hand, we did have one starling visit us last January, very briefly. So I guess they’re around. There are farms a half a kilometer away; perhaps they’re arriving from there.
In any case. Back to the point. I’d never spent much time observing starlings closely, except during the breeding season. While watching these three birds, I noticed that two of them had dark beaks, and one of them had a yellow beak. The yellow, I knew, made it an adult; the blueish tinge to the base made it a male. Logically, I then supposed, the dark bills on the other two made them first-winter birds. Starlings can breed fairly late, so I wondered if maybe they were autumn chicks. I had a blog post half written up in my head on the differences of bill colour in starlings by the time I’d finished snapping photos.
Of course, I rarely post anything without double-checking my facts, first, and I turned to Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds, which banders all over North America refer to when trying to age or sex an individual. I looked up European Starling to see what he had to say about bill colour. Strangely, there was no mention of bill colour beyond the difference of blue/pink at the base in males/females respectively. He does say that first-winter birds will show some yellow on the tongue through late fall, but that wasn’t terribly helpful to me here. Baffled, I turned to the internet. And discovered…
Starlings’ bills turn dark during the non-breeding season.
Who knew? All my urban days had been before I really got serious into birding, and I’d never had much opportunity to study the birds during the winter in my rural living, so I’d somehow managed to miss picking up this interesting bit of information. So those three birds… the bill colour tells me nothing except that the one bird’s taking his time changing his bill colour over. Looking at the photos more closely now, I can see that the tip of it is already darkened.
The yellow-billed bird had to have been a breeder this summer, as young birds wouldn’t have the yellow. But for the other two, the age is more uncertain. That said, Pyle does offer this somewhat helpful bit of distinction: for first-winter birds, the central tail feather (the one that sits on top when the bird has its tail folded) has “indistinct black subterminal edging and buff terminal edging” whereas in adult birds, the central feather has “distinctly defined black subterminal edging and cinnamon terminal edging”.
The upper tail is the yellow-billed bird – we know he’s an adult. You can see the well-defined black subterminal band. The lower tail is one of the two of unknown age. No obvious band, at least that I can tell from the photo. The other looks similar, in another photo. So maybe they are young birds, after all. The only way I’d feel comfortable saying for certain, though, is if I had them in the hand and was able to look at them closely.
I do, however, know that starlings only moult once, in the fall, and that their sleek summer breeding plumage is actually exactly the same set of feathers they’re wearing right now, but with all the pale tips worn off over the course of the winter. Snow Buntings do this, too. I’ve always found this moult strategy fascinating, the ability to produce two plumages without having to grow a second set of feathers. Seems like a pretty intelligent evolutionary approach.
The starlings stuck around only briefly. I saw them once more a bit later in the morning, and then they disappeared to parts unknown.