According to a recent story on the BBC, the answer is “yes, they are.”
“Starlings are lean and mean. In the industry they’re often called feathered bullets,” says Michael Begier, National Coordinator for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Airports Wildlife Hazards Program.
“They’re a particular problem at airports because they flock in very large numbers, and compared to other birds their bodies are very dense. They are about 27% more dense than a herring gull which is a much larger bird.”
When a flock of starlings strikes an airplane the effects can be devastating. In 1960 they caused the most deadly bird strike in US aviation history
The birds flew into the engines of a plane as it took off from Boston’s Logan Airport, and it crashed into the harbour, killing 62 people on board.
Starlings also cost US agriculture an estimated $1bn (£595m) a year in damage to crops – particularly fruit trees.
They can even cause milk production to drop at dairy farms because they steal the grain being fed to cows.
If you look at any bird book or website you can see that they are common all across the United States. We have a few in our neighborhood and for many years I’ve watched from the bedroom window as a pair (probably not the same ones!) nest in an air vent in the house next door. OK, so they are kinda mean and can be a problem but they are beautiful up close and fun to watch when they occasionally visit our feeders. The purplish black spotted bird is technically the European Starling. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology it all begins with Shakespeare.
First brought to North America by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the nineteenth century, European Starlings are now among the continent’s most numerous songbirds. They are stocky black birds with short tails, triangular wings, and long, pointed bills. Though they’re sometimes resented for their abundance and aggressiveness, they’re still dazzling birds when you get a good look. Covered in white spots during winter, they turn dark and glossy in summer. For much of the year, they wheel through the sky and mob
- All the European Starlings in North America descended from 100 birds [the BBC says there were 80] set loose in New York’s Central Park in the early 1890s. The birds were intentionally released by a group who wanted America to have all the birds that Shakespeare ever mentioned. It took several tries, but eventually the population took off. Today, more than 200 million European Starlings range from Alaska to Mexico, and many people consider them pests.
- Because of their recent arrival in North America, all of our starlings are closely related. Genetically, individuals from Virginia are nearly indistinguishable from starlings sampled in California, 3,000 miles away. Such little genetic variation often spells trouble for rare species, but seems to offer no ill effects to starlings so far.
So why are starlings Shakespearean? The BBC says they are mentioned in Henry IV Part 1
Hotspur is in rebellion against the King and is thinking of ways to torment him. In Act 1 Scene III he fantasizes about teaching a starling to say “Mortimer” – one of the king’s enemies.
“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 wrote.
This might actually not be so much of a fantasy as they, like the Northern Mockingbird are mimics according to the ornithologists at Cornell.
Starlings are great vocal mimics: individuals can learn the calls of up to 20 different species. Birds whose songs starlings often copy include the Eastern Wood-Pewee, Killdeer, meadowlarks, Northern Bobwhite, Wood Thrush, Red-tailed Hawk, American Robin, Northern Flicker, and many others.
So maybe Henry could have taught a starling to speak the name of Mortimer
Photograph of flock: Robert L. Wyckoff
Photograph of single starling: Lisa Bradley for the BBC.