By Chelsea Jandreau, Nature Educator

You can find birds living just about anywhere if you stop to look around for a bit, but in most cases the actual breakdown of species is going to look different in an urban area than it is in a nature preserve, rural area, or even a park and green space with forest or field habitats. There are some birds that do better with less infrastructure and more vegetation. On the flip side, there are plenty of highly adaptable birds that thrive in towns and cities. 

As someone who lives surrounded by a whole bunch of other people, the scene outside my window is populated with those birds who are flexible nesters and often have a wide ranging diet, or at least one that is supported by other plants and animals that thrive in towns and cities. While my suet feeder does get woodpeckers, the occasional chickadee, and its fair share of House Sparrows, the undisputed rulers are the Common Starlings. Every now and then a Blue Jay comes in to claim the title, but mostly those plentiful, iridescent birds come and go as they please.

Recently, the starlings have reappeared in a seemingly sudden cacophony of noise. Like plenty of other birds, starlings that live in the northern half of North America usually migrate in the winter looking for warmer temperatures, and then make the return trip back up in the spring. 

I usually hear them before I see them each year. When it gets warm enough to open up the window, and honestly sometimes even when the window is still closed, I hear them calling to mates, fighting over space and food, and sitting on the electrical wires going through their catalog of noises. Starlings, like other birds including mockingbirds and thrashers, are capable of mimicking not only other bird noises, but occasionally noises made by other animals and people.

Despite the reliability of their presence outside my window each spring, starlings, have a bit of a complicated story, and their very presence is somewhat of a touchy subject. In North America, the Common Starling is mostly referred to as a European Starling, and their name makes it very clear that they are not originally from around this part of the world. Instead, European Starlings are native to Europe and parts of Asia, where they migrate north and south in a similar fashion to their North American counterparts. Their earlier migration across the Atlantic Ocean to North America was not one of their choosing though.

The most popular story about how European Starlings crossed an ocean is our first point of debate. On one side is the popular human-interest piece and on the other side are a handful of researchers questioning some of the facts and historical accuracy of that widely accepted story.

The story goes that in 1890, a man named Eugene Schieffelin released anywhere from 50 to 80 pairs of starlings in a New York City park, and he did it because of William Shakespeare. It’s said that starlings were brought over in an effort to introduce every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. Schieffelin was a member of the American Acclimatization Society, part of whose mission was to introduce “such foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting.” This is a pretty broad statement and gives a lot of leeway for members to act at a whim. Throughout the 19th century, other birds had already been brought over from Europe to the US to varying degrees of success. Prior to the founding of this society, other birds like House Sparrows, were well on their way to invasive species status.

However, it turns out there is not a lot of concrete written evidence to the Shakespeare story. While research does seem to support the fact that Schieffelin did orchestrate and take part in the NYC release, resulting in European Starlings managing a concrete foothold in the states, the exact reason why is largely lost to history. Another story states that they were brought over to keep insect populations, especially caterpillars in certain trees, down in the city. It is also possible that the starling population managed to boom due to multiple introductions in the mid to late 1800s.

Whatever happened, someone or multiple someones introduced starlings to a new continent and they thrived. Starlings have since spread across a large portion of North America, and are now considered an invasive species.

The North American populations are often regarded as pests, nuisances or just a general annoyance. They show up in massive flocks called murmurations, creating a lot of noise and quite frankly, just pooping on everything they pass over. In some situations, they can control the population of other critters labeled as pests, such as invertebrates on crops, but, in large numbers, they can also be pests themselves when large flocks feed on fields of fruits and other crops, causing millions of dollars in damage each year.

Part of the reason starlings are making so much noise outside my window right now is that the males are attempting to court the females with both variety and length of noises and songs. Starlings are cavity nesters, meaning they seek out tree hollows, or other holes and nooks in buildings. They can be aggressive when searching for a nesting spot and can outcompete or even just kick out other birds from these spaces. This has the potential to negatively affect the populations of other cavity nesters such as bluebirds and woodpeckers.

They are certainly not the only and probably not even the primary reason for the noticeable decline in so many other bird populations. However, when these other birds are already fighting against habitat loss, urbanization and climate change, I’m sure that final battle over a food source or a nesting spot is probably more significant than it would have been otherwise. So while it may not be their fault, the result is still an ongoing impact on other birds, plants and people. The scope of that impact is still being studied and debated, so I suppose we will just have to see what the future holds.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.