The starlings of D.C.

©Rob Klug

There are more than 200 million starlings in the U.S., and it seems like most of them make their home in D.C.

You’ll often see starlings flying around solo or in small groups.

©Miki Jourdan
©Miki Jourdan

Murmurations

The real pleasure in watching starlings fly is seeing their “murmurations.” A murmuration is when hundreds or thousands (or even millions!) of birds combine into a large mass that flies as a swarm. Starlings stay in smaller groups during breeding season, but they are past their breeding now, so it is a great time to see murmurations. The best time to see a murmuration is in the minutes just before sundown, and the best place is somewhere near the Ellipse.

©Angela N.
Over the White House. ©Angela N.
National Christmas tree, 2020 ©Rob Klug
National Menorah on the Ellipse. ©Victoria Pickering
West side of the Ellipse ©Victoria Pickering
Fence along the Ellipse. ©Rob Klug

The other place where lots of starlings congregate centers around F and G St. between 8th and 9th St.

F Street. ©Angela N.

Why do they form murmurations? No one quite knows, although the belief is that it both keeps them warm and offers protection against predators. There’s no leader of a murmuration – starlings just keep adjusting their flight path in response to their neighbors.

What they eat

The short answer is that starlings eat almost everything. They love our trash.

Eating a chicken leg. ©Angela N.

Although sometimes they will settle for just eating the traditional worms:

©Angela N.

Pros and cons of starlings

On the plus side, not only is it fun to watch starlings, it’s also interesting to listen to them – they are very good mimics. They are generally monogamous. And they are very hardy, thriving everywhere.

Starling at the Smithsonian garden. ©Miki Jourdan
Near the MLK Memorial. ©Rob Klug.

The cons are pretty obvious. They eat crops, and in cities, their droppings can be a major problem – both as a potential carrier of histoplasmosis, and with the acid from their droppings eating away at buildings. They are also pretty aggressive, fighting both with each other and driving away other species from food and nesting areas. In 1960, a flight out of Boston ran into a swarm of starlings, crashing and killing 62 people.

©Angela N.

The Smithsonian studies the effects of starlings on the populations of other species.

Banding a bird. ©Angela N.

How did we end up with all these starlings?

Starlings are a non-native species, so they are not protected and humane destruction of adults, young, nests, and eggs is allowed. But usually a direct attempt to destroy them does not work. The best methods for dealing with them is to make it more desirable for them to go elsewhere – from blocking cavities where they could nest to preventing trash accumulations.

But we have Shakespeare to blame for starlings coming to the U.S. Back in 1890, Eugene Schieffelin and an organization he led decided that it would be a great idea to import all the birds mentioned in Shakespearean works into Central Park. Not all of the species took off, but the 60 or so starlings he imported are now more than 200 million, found everywhere in the U.S. except for deserts or forests – they especially go where the food is easiest, in either cities or agricultural areas.

The irony is that Shakespeare barely mentioned starlings – all he said was:

Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.

Shakespeare, Henry IV

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4 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article. It’s nice to see nature thriving around urban environments.

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