Darling starlings

European Starling - adult male and unknowns

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.

European Starlings - adult male and unknown

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.

European Starling

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.

European Starling - adult male

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”.

European Starling - adult (above) and prob. first-winter

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.

Easter birds

Red-winged Blackbird

At my parents’ for Easter dinner yesterday, I popped outside for some around-the-house birding while waiting for the turkey to come out of the oven. I decided not to venture further because there’s still quite a bit of snow on the ground, and with the (slightly) warming temperatures it’s quite soft now. Also, the driveway practically requires galoshes to navigate cleanly, and I haven’t unpacked mine from the winter yet.

There was still a fair bit of activity even just around the house, which is where birds congregate due to the presence of the feeders. I had to wait a little while, but I did finally get to see the Red-winged Blackbirds that my mom had reported arrived the other day. They usually come to the seed spread out on the driveway in front of the house, but yesterday they were sticking to the cast-off litter under the feeders in the backyard, possibly because of the seven cars parked in the driveway turnaround surrounding the seed. One also visited the suet a couple of times, which was where I got the best photos of him.

This is just a youngster, a second-year bird, meaning he was hatched last year (as birds’ ages are labeled by calendar year – he won’t truly be a year old till the summer). You can tell because the black feathers on his back and wings are fringed with orangey-brown, a characteristic of young males.

American Goldfinch and Red-winged Blackbird

Behind the blackbird, a couple of American Goldfinches were coming to the nyger feeder. They’ve been mysteriously absent for the last couple of months, only just starting to return recently. I’m not sure where they all went. Normally they spend the winter mobbing the feeders in fairly substantial numbers. The most I’ve seen at a time since mid-winter has been three.

The males, like this guy, are starting to get their brilliant summer yellow plumage. You can see it all beginning to come in around his face. In the middle of winter you can still tell the males from the females despite their relatively drab plumage because some males will retain slightly brighter yellow faces. Also, their wings and tails are a sharp, crisp black, rather than the duller brownish-black that females sport.

European Starling

The starlings have settled in. There’s at least a couple of pairs present now, with the two males often counter-singing to each other from their respective territorial perches. This particular male seems to have chosen the north peak of the house as his nest site of choice. Here he pauses in his singing to check out the activity (me) below. Two starlings, a Blue Jay and a White-breasted Nuthatch are the birds to have discovered the suet dough, so far. The nuthatch takes respectable small pieces, but the other two species really toss it back when they visit the feeder.

Red-shouldered Hawk

While standing out there watching the feeder birds, I glanced up at a crow crossing the the sky, and happened to spot, up high behind it, this Red-shouldered Hawk moving with purpose to the north. It was right at the reach of my (relatively) short 300mm lens, this is a close crop on the original image. There are a pair of Red-shoulders that live in the neighbourhood every year. I’m not sure where they nest, other than that it’s somewhere to the west of my parents’ place. I regularly hear them calling from that direction in the summer.

I recall some years ago there being some concern over decreasing populations in the province, but I think these declines are more limited to the southwestern portion, west and southwest of Toronto. That said, the recent Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas recorded them in quite a number of areas where they hadn’t been 20 years ago. There is some likelihood that this is due in part to new surveys that were implemented for the species by Bird Studies Canada in 1991, contributing a lot more targeted effort than took place in the first atlas. Still, even taking this into consideration, the results of the atlas are encouraging, and probably suggest increasing forest cover in the south of the province as abandoned fields regenerate. They remain an uncommon species in most of my “home range”, and I’m always pleased to see one.

Also on the raptor front, although I wasn’t able to get a photo, I spotted a Turkey Vulture circling over the escarpment, the first of the season. They migrate south for the winter, so are always a welcome sight in the spring. Come summer you can usually see at least one or two over the escarpment where the topography of the cliffs creates great thermals for soaring. During the peak of migration you can have up to a couple dozen.

Common Redpoll

This Common Redpoll has been hanging around the feeders for a little while, she was there earlier in the week as well. She doesn’t seem to be doing too well, although I’m not sure what she might be ill with. She was feeding periodically, and moving around on the ground, but at other times would just sit on the feeder perch or at the top of the birdhouse in the centre of the garden, looking around but otherwise not doing much.

She’s identifiable primarily because she’s always fluffed up into a near-spherical shape. Fluffing like that is a bird’s way of putting on extra layers – when we would go grab an extra sweater, the birds will fluff up their feathers. The amount of fluffing is similar to the number of layers of clothing, as the air pocket trapped under the feathers, which traps warm air close to the body, will increase as the feathers are further raised. None of the other birds were fluffed this much, it wasn’t that cold out. Birds that are sick will usually fluff their feathers as well, I suspect in a similar reaction to our burying under the covers when we have a fever and are suffering chills.

She was too active for me to consider trying to catch her, and she is continuing to eat, so that’s in her favour. However, she was still sitting at the feeder at dusk, one lone redpoll. I hope she gets well.

Common Redpoll

A harbinger of spring

Edit: This post was recently included in the 70th edition of I and the Bird, a blog carnival focusing on, you guessed it, birds. You can check out the full edition at Earth, Wind & Water.

First starling of spring

The northeast got another dump of snow last night. Although it was only just lightly starting in the evening before I went to bed, by the time I got up there was a good eight inches on the ground, and it was still snowing with some conviction.

Snowfall

It finally began to taper off mid-morning. I happened to be at my parents’ for a few days of renovation work, so I didn’t have to go anywhere in it, but when my dad got home he said the driving was pretty slick on the way in to work. I helped my mom put the horses out in the fields; she normally takes them herself two at a time, but the younger two are very lively and with the slippery conditions she wasn’t keen about having a prancing horse at the end of each arm.

The feeders were very active this morning. Virtually every bird in the surrounding woods had come out to fuel up at the convenient food source while it was snowing. Surprisingly, I didn’t see the big flocks of redpolls that usually turn up in this weather; they seem to have traded off with American Tree Sparrows, which were unusually abundant.

First starling of spring

Mom and I were looking out the window at the activity when she commented, “what’s that dark thing in the tree, just a knot? Or is it a starling?” Sure enough, it was a starling. This is a very notable sighting for us (worth writing in my newly-started Nature Calendar!). Because my parents are out in the country, their starlings don’t stick around over the winter. They depart in the fall with the rest of the migrants, and then come back again early in the spring to nest in the eaves of the house and garage. There’re usually at least three pairs nesting here every summer.

First starling of spring

They’re the true harbinger of spring here. They arrive earlier than any other migrant, even the Red-winged Blackbirds, which are early arrivals. Unfortunately I don’t have a solid record of arrival dates over recent years. Shoulda been keeping a calendar… I’d be interested to know where they all go in the winter, whether they just skip down to the nearby town, or if they migrate some distance away.

Starling sneaking up on doves

I love starlings, they’re one of my favourite birds. This is due in part to my years in university, living in town, where during the winter they, and the House Sparrows, were the only signs of life for months. Their chattery song is very lively and upbeat, even when there’s a foot of snow on the ground. They’ve got lots of character, and I personally think their glossy irridescence is beautiful.

They aren’t so universally welcomed, however. Note these Mourning Doves are keeping an eye on this individual as she clambers around the tree foraging for edible bits. Starlings have a well-earned reputation as being bullies of the bird world. Although this one was alone, they usually move around in flocks in the winter, shooing other birds away from feeders when they move in to hoard all the food. They are definitely hogs when it comes to the good stuff, and has driven many a backyard bird feeder to “snob feeding” (to coin a Julie Zickefoose term). We don’t mind them here, however, since they’re so few in number.

Too close for comfort

The starling gets a little too close for comfort and the dove decides to move to a different perch. Starlings are also known for kicking more passive birds from nesting boxes. One of their main victims is the Purple Martin, but they’ll also kick out bluebirds, tree swallows, woodpeckers (including the hefty Northern Flicker), and just about any other bird that happens to have chosen a box the starling desires.

Starling and Blue Jay

Only the birds of similar size will challenge the starlings, as this Blue Jay prepares to do here. Blue Jays themselves are charismatic, bold and pushy, both with other birds…

Starling and Blue Jays

…and between themselves. The starling waits her turn.

I’m pretty sure this one’s a female. Starlings are neat because, although males and females have essentially the same plumage, during the winter and subsequent breeding season the “cere”, the soft fleshy part at the base of their bill, changes colour. Appropriately, the males turn blueish, and the females turn pinkish. Males also have nice, long, glossy throat feathers that they puff out and show off when singing. Incidentally, the white speckles you see on winter birds wear off over the winter so that the black, irridescent “summer plumage” is really just the same feathers they had all winter, minus the white tips.

Starling and cardinal

A female cardinal gives the suet a once-over. Cardinals rarely visit the suet, instead preferring the fat-rich sunflower seeds. A starling’s beak isn’t as well-designed to cracking open the hard shells of seeds, and their summer diet is primarily insects and berries. In the winter, the suet is their favourite. It’s not such a problem here, with just a few birds, but if you live in town and have a whole flock of them descend on your feeder, their powerful beaks can hack it apart and gobble it up amazingly quickly.

Their scientific name is Sturnus vulgaris. Back when the species was named, “vulgar” meant “common”, rather than ugly or unpleasant as it is often used now, so the scientific name basically meant “Common Starling”. I’m sure there are a lot of North American bird watchers who would also identify with the word’s other meaning, however.

Sunny day

Late morning the sun came out, and it was a beautifully bright day. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much time to enjoy it, working as I was.

I’m using my mom’s computer to post this evening. Most of my photos were a little underexposed because of the overcast, snowy conditions this morning, so I had to brighten them up a tad on the computer. Unfortunately, I do most of my photo editing in a different program at home, and I can’t seem to make Photoshop accomplish the same things, even though I appear to be using the same or similar command. So, because I was shooting through a window, some of these may seem a little cloudy, or the snow overexposed now; I just couldn’t seem to fix it, for some reason!