Vail Daily column: Starlings aren’t all bad
August 22, 2010
As I sit down to write about another species that people love to hate, I feel compelled to reconcile my own negative feelings towards this migrant known for aggressively displacing our native songbirds. I’m talking about the European Starling. The conclusion I have come to, though, is that despite their aggressive and arguably immoral behavior, they demonstrate an impressive intelligence, adaptability, and a strong will to survive.
In my quest to find value in all species, I stumbled upon some recent research focusing on starling flocking behavior. If you’ve never seen a group of starlings flocking, it’s quite a sight! Flying through the air like a giant school of fish suddenly gone airborne, it looks as if every movement has been carefully choreographed as they flow through the air like swirls of smoke. From a distance, they look like a dark cloud suddenly come alive, and the image takes me back to the days of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
As it turns out, scientists have long wondered how birds are able to fly in large flocks without at least occasionally crashing into one and other, especially since we humans can’t even seem to drive on opposite sides of the highway without colliding occasionally. Models of flock movement have been designed around ideas related to aerodynamics, where the birds were thought to monitor the actions of the flock through changes in pressure. Recent research out of Italy, from a project called STARFLAG – Starlings in Flight, however, indicates that each individual bird is actually monitoring six or seven other individuals and behaving according to cues from these individuals. The research team includes a diverse team of scientists, including biologists, physicists, and economists, and they have concluded that the flocking behavior of starlings indicates a high degree of cooperation and intelligence. I can only imagine what it takes to keep track of seven other birds in flight, as I can hardly keep track of my two kids at the park.
Aside from being interesting, what are the practical applications for spending lots of time and money watching birds fly in circles? One potential application is in the field of robotics. Robotic drones are being used increasingly in combat situations, and they have potential uses in other industries including agriculture, aviation and transportation. It is thus possible that the lowly starling could provide insights that will someday save lives.
Why is it, then, that many consider the starling to be a pest? For starters, large flocks of birds leave large flecks of bird poop, feathers and a general mess. Furthermore, starlings are considered aggressive. It is thought that they compete with native species of bluebirds and swallows for nesting cavities. Recent research, however, from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, indicates that native songbird populations are actually not impacted by the presence of starlings, with sapsuckers listed as the only species to show declines.
Another annoying trait attributed to the starling, is its obnoxious song. Finally, female starlings have a cruel habit known as brood parasitism, the practice of replacing the eggs of another species with their own. This leaves another mother to unwittingly raise the starling’s young. However, this is not the norm, and typically only occurs when the female cannot find a mate early enough in the breeding season and has to resort to parasitic breeding as a last resort.
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We have many wonderful imports from Europe in our country – beautiful leather goods from Italy, Waterford crystal from Ireland, and of course, the great beers from Germany and Belgium. The starling, too, is a European import, set loose intentionally in Central Park by a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts who called themselves the American Acclimatization Society. The group’s quest was to introduce all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works to the U.S. – quite a nightmare if you consider that the Bard referenced more than 600 different bird species in all. However, in those carefree days before environmental impact statements, no one noticed or cared much about the initial 100 invader birds set loose in the park, and no one could possibly have imagined that they would someday number more than 200 million birds.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate studies at Walking Mountains: A Science Learning Center. She enjoys watching birds of all kinds, including those that are loud and annoying.