Even if we don’t love starlings, we should learn to live with them

They devour crops and cattle feed, and they nab other birds’ nesting sites. Still, starlings can actually show us how we can adjust our relationship to the natural world, says writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

.. Starlings are among the most despised birds in all of North America, and with good reason (TEDxRainier Talk: Encounter the everyday wilderness). They are a ubiquitous, nonnative, invasive species. There are so many that no one can count them — estimates run to about 200 million.

.. As deputy of the American Acclimatization Society of New York, Schieffelin, it is believed, latched onto the goal of bringing every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to Central Park, and he zeroed in on the Bard’s single reference to a starling in Henry IV. In 1890, he purchased 80 of the birds, had them shipped to the US, and released them on a snowy March day in Central Park. Genetic research in sample populations across the continent leads ornithologists to believe that all of the hundreds of millions of starlings in North America are descendants of Schieffelin’s birds.

It took them just 80 years to populate the continent, and they’ve behaved atrociously in their New World. They feast on crops and lurk around farms and lots where they binge on feed in the troughs of cattle and swine. According to an estimate by Cornell University researchers, in the US starlings cause $800 million in agricultural damage every year.

.. In 1960, Eastern Airlines Flight 375 took off from Boston’s Logan Airport for Philadelphia and other points south. Seconds after takeoff, it collided with a flock of 20,000 starlings. Two of the four engines lost power, the plane plunged into the sea, and 62 people died. After the crash, officials tested seasoned pilots on flight simulators to see if any could have saved the plane in such a scenario. All failed. In other tests, live starlings were thrown into running engines. It was found that just three or four birds could cause a dangerous power drop.

.. Starlings are despised above all else by conservationists for their ability to outcompete native birds for food and a limited number of nest sites.

.. In 2015, US government agents killed over one million starlings — more than any other so-called nuisance species.

.. Yet these killings have made no dent in starling numbers, and they never will. There are simply too many starlings, and they are too good at reproducing and surviving.

.. while their populations have grown and spread exponentially, they have for the last thirty years or so been stable. Every species has a carrying capacity

.. at least some of their impact on native birdlife may turn out to be more perceived than real. Researchers at Berkeley conducted a years-long survey, published in 2003, that was designed to document the impact of starlings on indigenous species, and they were not able to determine quantifiable harm.

.. In 1939, a not-yet-famous Rachel Carson wrote an essay titled “How About Citizenship Papers for the Starling?” In it she argued that instead of seeing the bird as an invader, people should accept starlings as a regular species and give up talk of “invasive” and “nonnative.” This notion is echoed by some modern conservationists, who say there are many invasive species, like the starling, that are simply ineradicable. Instead of spending time and effort worrying about such species, we should accept them as part of the modern landscape and move on to issues we can actually do something about.

.. the most significant point to remember is that starlings thrive in areas that are disturbed by human presence, including dense urban environments — places where more sensitive species cannot survive in the long term. For now, it seems some birds go elsewhere when their nests are usurped.

.. We need to design human landscapes that are hospitable to more species of native birds. This means less grass and more trees.

.. even a few trees in urban neighborhoods will increase the diversity of bird species, and that people who live near trees are healthier — mentally and physically — than those who don’t.