Last month when I interviewed ornithologist Don Kroodsma about his wonderful new book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, we talked a bit about the splendid bird that has become an ecological scourge here in America. My son had a pet starling named Mortimer for many years, and I love their songs, so even as I hate their presence here for the problems they pose to cavity nesters such as Red-headed Woodpeckers and bluebirds, I can’t help but be fond of the individuals.
DON: Oh, people love to hate starlings, and I can understand that. They’re blamed for the decline of some of our cavity-nesting birds, but if you just listen to a starling, or look at one closely, they’re quite stunning to look at too, with all that iridescence. But if you listen to a starling—I think back to an experience I had. I was standing underneath a Florida palm tree, the parabola was aimed up into the tree, and I swore I had a whole flock of birds up there doing various things. I took the headphones off, looked around, listened—no! It was just one starling that was doing all this. And it totally befuddled me.
They mimic, yes, but it didn’t dawn on me until I started looking at some of the sonograms of these songs what they were doing. There’s an example in the book, #343, where an Eastern male is simultaneously mimicking, and when I say simultaneously, he has a left voice box and a right voice box, as do all these songbirds, and with the left voice box he’s mimicking one species and with the right voice box simultaneously the other. Eastern Phoebe and a Northern Flicker. And immediately after that, he’s got Sandhill Crane and a Black-capped Chickadee—two bugles of the Sandhill Crane and the Black-capped Chickadee. And those also are simultaneous, with the other voice box producing standard clicks and chortles of European Starlings.
ME: The recording Don referred to, which I played in the background of my podcast, is from the companion website to his book, where you can listen to or even download (for free, without registering!) an amazing assortment of bird songs, at www.birdsongforthecurious.com. When I was starting out as a birder, I discovered how often starlings imitate Eastern Wood-Pewees and Eastern Meadowlarks.
DON: Yes. The songs you mentioned are those nice slow, sliding whistles that the starling often begins his song with. After that slow introduction, you’re totally unprepared for the energy that’s going to follow, and the frantic finale where he’s waving his wings and throwing his entire body into the song. He’s something to watch as well as listen to.
That recording #343, that’s of an Eastern male. Well, the Western birds, Western starlings, well they mimic Western birds of course—they don’t have any of the Eastern species. And I have another example of a Western bird, where it is amazing all the birds that he is mimicking in one song. I list them here in the book, p. 76: Long-billed Curlew. California Quail—it’s just beautiful. Tree Swallow. Pacific Tree Frog. A Wilson’s Snipe winnow. Another Long-billed Curlew. A Killdeer. And then, for me the climax, simultaneously, mimicking a House Sparrow and Sandhill Crane, two species that are opposite ends of the spectrum of birds that we just cherish. It’s as if he’s doing this just to spite us. Then an American Robin song, and then ending it with a Black-crowned Night-Heron about 35 seconds into the song. You have to be up close to starlings to appreciate them, and all the better if you’ve got a parabolic reflector aimed right at the bird and you hear all these priceless little details that he’s rolling out onto you.
ME: Those individual starlings have no idea whatsoever that they belong on another continent entirely—they and their songs have been fully Americanized. Some recent studies have shown that starlings haven’t caused a decline in some cavity nesters, such as flickers, so they’re not quite as bad as we used to believe, and are a lot more interesting than most of us like to admit.