A Murmuration of Starling Thoughts


Photo by Roman.

I read recently that starlings were “bereft of any sort of lovely birdsong…” Starlings might reasonably disagree. It’s a judgement, after all. But it got me thinking about one late Spring afternoon when a starling perched next to my window, unseen. It cackled to itself for a while, thoughtfully, then it quoted the songs of six different species of bird. Between each quote, it provided a brief meditation of tuneful whistles. Having concluded its survey of the neighborhood, the bird decided… something… and departed.

The bird’s monologue wasn’t a Shakespearean soliloquy nor would I have characterized it as lovely. Nice, perhaps, and certainly interesting, it was a kind of prosetry, depending on how you mean that and I’ll leave it to those who care about it to fight over the definition.

The common starling (what we commonly see around Rogers Park) is a mistrustful bird, usually. Pigeons and sparrows might make assumptions about humans, remaining to feed as you pass by for example, but starlings not so much. I’ve been amused to pretend it’s because the common starling is an invasive species in North America, not having arrived here until the 1890s in the service, it is said, of William Shakespeare. But it probably has a lot more to do with predation. What eats starlings? There’s quite a list of creatures, including other birds, who would fancy a starling appetizer, according to Wikipedia. Patrolling domestic cats also regard them as the perfect gift for their humans. And why not? Humans have been known to eat them, but as Wikipedia notes: “Even when correctly prepared, it may still be seen as an acquired taste.”

Starlings are pretty agile creatures so it’s mostly the young (if I remember correctly, something like an 80% casualty rate from hatching to adulthood) and the old that get eaten. Those that survive must have something similar to a permanent case of PTSD. Were I in their wings, I’d avoid humans, too.

For all of that, I’ve only seen one starling eaten. It was along the lakefront in Loyola Park. At the margin of the beach, where the walkway bounds the sand, a starling was ambushed by some small raptor. There was nothing but a muffled thump, and the raptor spiralled to the sand, starling in hand. The raptor was about to snack when it noticed its audience. Starling to go was preferable, then. It left with what seemed to be a very dead starling; it made no protest nor struggle. I pretend the starling died of fright and surprise. The alternative is that the starling was slowly suffocating in the iron grip of the raptor while hoping to die before its captor began to feed.

An 80% casualty rate from hatching to adulthood has got to make heartbreak the major theme of starling life. That’s an average, of course. A few broods do better. Some do worse: like the hopeful couples who, every year, decide the cable box next to my window is an ideal site for a nest. Indeed, in the early spring, warmed by the sun, it’s a lovely place for eggs and hatchlings. But later in the year it’s quite precisely an oven. To be fair, other species than starlings make the same mistake, sparrows for example. And don’t get the cable technicians started about hornets and bees.

The starlings seem to miscalculate about the window, too. Having scouted the property during the cool months of spring when the window was closed and dark, an open window with an actual human is quite the shock. One can almost see the birds recalculating the resale value of the cable box condo.

And then, of course, there are those cable technicians.

As adults, starlings are good for two or three years. If you take a human life span of 80 years, that would set each starling year at about 20 human years. That number is a bit misleading. In captivity, starlings have lived to nearly 23 years of age so it would be more apt to use the oldest human, the record in 2020 still being about 122 years. Furthermore, growing into adulthood is its own period and should be compared separately. So if we set the first year of starlinghood at 21 human years, the rest of the it works out to about 4.5 human years per starling year. Meaning that the starling who dies at the old age of 4 is about the same as a human thirty-something.

Life is tough and then you’re eaten.

Starlings often raise two families a year, so it’s not as if they’re endangered, and global warming climate simulations suggest that starlings will expand their geographic range in the next few decades.

I’ve only met one starling who was a pet and a potential candidate for old age. The bird graced a used book store here in Rogers Park, the Turtle Island if I remember correctly. The store is long gone and the space at the northeast corner of Glenwood and Lunt has been successively occupied by generations of miscellaneous businesses, most recently a veterinary clinic. The book store owner, as I recall, frequently fed the starling canned cat food.

There’s a certain prosetry to that, I think.

Author: rmichaelroman

... whatever ...

3 thoughts on “A Murmuration of Starling Thoughts”

  1. Had to google what this bird is. Now I know. They are more widespread back at home, for sure, but I didn’t know they are invasive species here.


    1. Yep. And even after over a century here, I fancy that I.C.E. still makes them uneasy… 🙂 North America is sodden with imported species, not just humans. The iconic cowboy movie prop, tumble weed? That’s from your old neck of the woods. And that “Kentucky” bluegrass? Ditto. I don’t know whether to characterize this as a good thing or a bad thing, except that I do know that ecologies are most resilient when they are complex and that successful imports tend to simplify instead. On the other hand, starlings are at least interesting and, should you like Shakespeare or if you’re a bird of prey, perhaps a real pleasure as well.


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