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Starlings known as ‘rats of the sky’

This shows an adult starling in non-breeding plumage; during the breeding season (March to August) the white spots are less noticeable and the bill is yellow.   - Photo courtesy of B. Mckay
This shows an adult starling in non-breeding plumage; during the breeding season (March to August) the white spots are less noticeable and the bill is yellow.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of B. Mckay

As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, the Okanagan Valley is home to many invasive species, brought to North America (and ultimately here) from elsewhere, either accidentally or worse, on purpose.

One species that falls into the latter category is the European starling, first brought to New York City in the 1890s by someone who thought it would be a great idea to introduce to North America all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare.

The starlings certainly thought it was a great idea — their descendants now are found pretty well everywhere in North America except the far north. They have been placed on the list of the 100 most invasive species in the world.

In Australia where they are also a non-native invasive species they are known as “rats of the sky.”

Some people might say, so what’s the big deal — a few more robin–sized birds across the countryside is hardly a catastrophe. In actual fact, starlings are a very big deal, from several viewpoints. And unfortunately we are talking about much more than a few birds. The U.S. population of starlings is estimated at about 200 million birds, making them one of the most common birds in the U.S.A. They are equally common in the southern parts of Canada — basically anywhere that has agriculture or livestock operations has large starling populations.

Starlings are very aggressive birds and frequently displace native cavity-nesting birds, even those substantially larger. I’ve personally seen a pair of starlings drive a nesting pair of flickers out of their nest hole and take over the site for their own use. Any hole in a tree, barn, house or elsewhere that is greater than about one inch in diameter will be used by starlings. The damage to native species is hard to quantify but is certainly substantial as many studies have shown.

In the fall and winter starlings become communal and flocks can reach incredible sizes, with at least one flock in the U.S. estimated at one million birds. More commonly the flocks are in the thousands of birds to perhaps 20,000. Such vast numbers can be hazardous in many ways — at least 25 diseases are known to be transmitted by starlings and their droppings in winter roosts can accumulate up to one foot in depth — a potentially significant health hazard in urban areas. In winter especially cattle feed lots suffer significant food losses to large flocks.

Starlings also cause millions of dollars of crop damage every year — in the U.S., starling damage to crops has been estimated at between $800 million and $1 billion per year. In the Okanagan Valley, starlings mainly cause damage to grapes, cherries, peaches and apricots. The loss to growers is estimated at about $4 million per year for the Okanagan-Similkameen.

Because of this damage, a starling trapping program has been underway in the South Okanagan for a number of years. This program focuses on trapping the birds during the summer months and euthanizing them with carbon dioxide. Birds caught in the traps are first sorted through and any native birds (robins, Brewers blackbirds, etc.) are released. While this program has helped to keep the number of starlings in check, the Grape Growers Association wants to now enlist the help of the public to combat these pests.

The public can help in several ways. First, you can report any nesting sites or major roosting sites of starlings that you observe. Secondly, If you find starlings nesting on your property you can help control them by eliminating their nesting sites, and the easiest way to do that is to close up the entrance holes by closing them with wood or a wire mesh covering.

To get help with a starling problem or to report nesting sites, contact the B.C. Grape Growers Association at bcga@nethop.net or 1-877-762-4652

The next meeting of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club will be held on April 25 when Bernie Fandrich, a pioneer of the white water rafting industry in Canada, will make an illustrated presentation about B.C.’s majestic Thompson River. Our meetings are held at the Penticton United Church and begin at 7 p.m. The public is welcome.

 

 

 

Bob Handfield is president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club but the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the club.

 

 

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