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European Starling

by John Shackford

Many years ago, about 1979, there was a huge blackbird roost in the cattails at the north end of Lake Overholser that was composed primarily of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and Red-winged Blackbirds.  This roost fascinated me enough that I wrote a piece about it that I kept but never used anywhere.  The following 4 paragraphs are from that piece, which was called “Oklahoma City’s Awesome Black Cloud.”

It’s dusk and I am witnessing one of nature’s awesome spectacles.  Blackbirds—Redwings, Grackles, Starlings, Cowbirds—by the thousands are coming to roost in cattails at Lake Overholser.  By now there must be well over a million.

Every winter these cattails become one of the nation’s largest blackbird roosts.  Best estimates of peak numbers over the last several years have ranged between 500,000 and 8,000,000 birds; the present horde is estimated at 2-3 million, but who really knows.  There are just too many to count. Starlings, a million or so, are this year’s most populous species. 

In 1890 a handful was transplanted from England to Central Park in New York City.  Who would have guessed that that handful in Central Park would generate the spectacle before me now in Oklahoma City.

It’s dark now.  But birds still fly in, still squawk.  Soon an occasional individual may become the victim of a Great-horned Owl or a mink.  But for most the night will pass uneventfully.  And the morning will see them once again rising from the marshes like a black fog.

In winter I think Starlings still roost at Lake Overholser—in relatively small numbers—in cattails north of NW 39th St., but the huge roost south of NW 39th in no longer there. As mentioned above, the Starling once did not inhabit North America.  There were several attempts to introduce the Starling into the United States, but the attempt usually credited as being the first successful introduction was by Eugene Scheifflin.  On March 6, 1890 he released 80 birds in Central Park in New York City and made a second introduction of 40 birds at the same place on April 25, 1891.

Starlings are now found across virtually all of the contiguous United States, much of Canada, and well into Alaska.  For most of this area the species is shown as a permanent resident on field guide maps, although there is some retreating shown along the northern edge of its range.  But in winter the species, although it can live far to the north, shows considerable condensation to the south and that is what accounts for our huge blackbird roosts in Oklahoma in winter.

There was one concerted effort to get a reasonably accurate count of Starling roost numbers for one of our Christmas Bird Counts not many years ago.  The roost was in downtown Oklahoma City, under the bridges of the crosstown expressway.  Warren Harden noted that birds perched about 1-2 inches apart on beams under the expressway.  He then estimated the length of the spans under bridges where the birds were roosting.  After multiplying everything out, he came up with approximately 500,000 birds.  This number looks pretty silly in light of an older bird book I have (printed in 1917) that said the birds sometimes flocked together in groups of up to 10,000 birds.

Starlings nest in holes in trees and have been a problem bird for several native species.  One problem, for example, has been Starlings ousting Red-bellied Woodpeckers from their nests.  The Starlings will wait until a Red-belly finishes excavating a nest and then move in to take the newly made hole.  I do not remember the exact details, but Dr. George Sutton of Norman once undertook to see how persistent the Starlings were at a Red-belly nest across the street from his home:  As each new Starling moved into the nest, he shot it.  Something like 24 Starlings were shot and I am not sure that the Red-bellies ever were successful at that nest.  Other birds like Northern Flickers and Eastern Bluebirds also can suffer a similar fate.

I have one revelation that I only share with my closest birding friends.  My middle name is Starling.  John Starling Shackford.  This is a revered name in our family because of one of my grandfathers, “Popa” Starling.  He was a remarkable businessman in North Carolina.  It is mere coincidence that I grew up to be a birdwatcher!  Nobody pushed me!