Phenology Journal: Watching Starlings (Sturnus Vulgaris)

This morning, starlings were whistling and clucking in the back trees by eight o’clock. Starlings are the first of the city spring birds and the most optimistic. Singing by the middle of January, they introduce the great creature chorus that swells deep into October.

A Daybook for the Year in Yellow Springs, January 28, 1998

Over the years, I have paid attention to starlings, both as visitors to my yard and also as creators of dramatic murmurations that dive and spin through the winter. Their behavior in and around my village in the Ohio Valley does not always keep a strict schedule, and many of their activities overlap from season to season, but my scattered records reflect something of their periodic movements.

After spending the late autumn and early winter in great flocks that visit and feast in the fields, starlings frequently break into smaller groups early in the year.

Sometimes, as they did on January 4, 2012, the first small flock comes down from the woods to eat suet in my yard. On January 12 of this year, in the midst of snowbursts, the first starlings joined the cardinals, sparrows, doves, cowbirds, chickadees, tufted titmice and a red-bellied woodpecker at my birdfeeder.

I have notes from the middle of February about clusters of starlings visiting the neighborhood more frequently, even courting then, and it seems that most of the larger flocks have broken up and pairing has begun by March 1.

On March 4, 1991, I noticed “doves making a nest in a locust tree. Starlings were nesting in holes in the limbs of the same tree.” And from that point forward through the years, I have sometimes seen starlings attacking the shiny flashing of my chimney, trying to be sure that not even phantom birds could encroach upon their space.

Starlings complete courtship in March and April throughout the Lower Midwest, and by May 15, the first fledglings have emerged to whine and beg for food – which they do, depending on the permissiveness of the parents, throughout June and into July.

Then, by the middle of August, I notice the high wires filling with the sturnus vulgaris and the first murmurations dancing in the sky. Some starling families do remain in my village, clucking, chirping, burbling, and whistling through the autumn and early winter. Usually, however, by the beginning of November, there are fewer small flocks in town, and most of the birds gather to soar and feed as one until the sun starts to rise earlier in the morning and the breeding cycle once again divides and scatters their winter assemblies.


Bill Felker

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