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Diet of The Wild European Starling

Painting of wild European starlings foraging for food

Excerpts from The US Department of Agriculture's: Farmers' Bulletin No1571.

"The starling is one of the most effective bird enemies of terrestrial insect pests in this country. More than half (57 percent) of the annual food of the adult starling consists of animal matter, including insects, millipedes, spiders, mollusks, a few crustaceans, and bits of suet and carrion. In April and May such food constitutes more than nine-tenths of the bird's diet, and even in February, when the opportunities for obtaining animal food are few, it forms more than 28 percent of the total. Nearly three-fourths of the animal food of the starlings, or more than 42 percent of its entire diet, consists of insects. October is the month of greatest consumption of insects, when they form nearly 58 percent of food, but in June, August, September, and November they also provide more than half of the starling's sustenance.

Nearly half the starling's insect food consists of beetles –– weevils, ground beetles, and plant-feeding scarabaeids predominating. Conspicuous among such items is the clover-leaf weevil, a European pest imported into the Eastern States. The starling must be classed as one of the most effective bird enemies of the Japanese beetle. Other beetles eaten by starlings are wireworms and leaf beetles, among which was the Colorado potato beetles. Grasshoppers and crickets furnish about an eighth of the yearly food of the adult starling. From August to November these insects form the bulk of the animal matter taken. When hayfields are being cut and raked in the latter part of August and early in September, flocks of young starlings obtain practically all of their sustenance from these insects, supplementing it with wild black cherries and elderberries. Conspicuous among the grasshoppers eaten were the red-legged locust and others of the same genus.

The terrestrial feeding habits of the starling limit the variety of caterpillars eaten, but this restriction has permitted the bird to distinguish itself as a most effective enemy of that notorious pest, the cutworm. The European corn borer also has not been overlooked by the starling.

From the viewpoint of the farmer the insect-feeding habits of the starling leave little to be desired. In its diet are some of the worst pests of garden and field. These it takes in surprisingly large quantities during the growing season, and even in winter it eats many hibernating individuals.

Cultivated cherries form 2.66 percent of the adult starling's annual diet, but, of course the consumption of such food is restricted to June and July when it forms approximately 17 and 15 per cent, respectively. Some idea of the extent of the starling's activities may be gained by comparison with the food habits of the robin. From the examination of 1,236 stomachs, it has been found that the robin feeds on cultivated fruit about twice as much as does the starling, and during June and July, robins obtain about 24 and 23 percent, respectively of their food from cultivated cherries.

As in the case of men, however, who are often judged by the company they keep, the starling has been accused of deeds perpetrated largely by the species with which it associates. Not only is it generally accredited with eating as much corn as the grackle and the red-winged blackbird, an assumption that has been disproved, but many farmers confuse it with these species, with the result that flocks of juvenile redwings are often considered to be starlings and their depredations charged against them. Corn formed 0.77 of 1 percent of the yearly food of starlings. By far the largest part of the corn eaten by starlings is waste grain obtained during winter and early spring.

The demand of food (insects) by nestlings is greatest during May, June and July, a time when growing crops are benefited most by a suppression of their insect enemies. Few birds are more voracious than young starlings, and it requires the most strenuous efforts of the naturally active parents to supply the constant needs of their offspring. More than 95 percent of the nestling's food is animal matter, largely insects. Cutworms are especially attractive to the young birds, caterpillars as a group forming more than 38 percent of their diet.

Most of the starling's habits are either beneficial to man or of an economically neutral character. Field observation has established the fact that the time spent by starlings in destroying crops or in molesting other species of birds is extremely short compared with the endless hours they spend searching for insects or feeding on wild fruits. There is no question that the influence of the European Starling in the United States is beneficial. As a destroyer of such pests as the clover-leaf weevil, the Japanese beetle, May beetles, cutworms, and grasshoppers, it is even more energetic than some of our protected native birds".

SFU News
Oct. 17, 2002

Starlings Beating Bad Rap
By Marianne Meladahl

Oliver Love (left), on the Davistead farm, checks his starling boxes with David (center) and Hugh Davis
Oliver Love (left), on the Davistead farm, checks his starling boxes with David (center) and Hugh Davis

They are birds with a bad reputation, but an SFU researcher studying the reproductivity of starlings on a Langley dairy farm may be proving that wrong.

Biology graduate student Oliver Love, who set up 250 bird boxes on the sprawling 200-acre farm earlier this year, is using the site's abundant starling population to investigate the role of a hormone known as corticosterone in bird reproduction.

Owners of the fifth-generation farm say damage by pests to their fields has been notably reduced since the birds, numbering in the thousands, began making their springtime rounds about a decade ago.

Despite their penchant for targeting blueberry crops and displacing some native bird species, Love says starlings can also have a flip side. They attack leatherjacket larvae, which typically infest and destroy huge patches of forage. Farm owner David Davis says letting nature take its course has replaced the need for pesticides.

The farm, with its sprawling natural setting, became an ideal site for Love and biology professor Tony Williams to study the birds. They were initially stationed at a field site in Agassiz and found the Davistead farm through the local field naturalists club. "This is not only a great natural environment, but the owners are so willing and agreeable to let us carry out this research," notes Love.

The Davis family doesn't mind the daily appearance of the PhD student and colleague Allison Clark, who are continuing their observations until the birds retreat for winter. "We're happy to participate," Davis says. "What they learn might eventually help us."

During the nesting season, from mid-April until late June, the researchers do daily egg counts and obtain blood samples from the birds. The samples enable Love to study hormonal variation within the species and how variation shapes the evolution of traits, such as the number and size of eggs that are laid and the health of chicks. Love is also monitoring what effect the hormone has on the mothering skills of birds.

During this year's nesting season, Love says about half of his boxes were occupied and 88 offspring were produced.

Starlings came to North America about a century ago, when 100 of the European birds were released in New York City. Their population in North and Central America today is estimated to be more than 200 million.

To read the original story please click here: SFU News Story
My sincere thanks to SFU for permission to use this article.

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