Monday, February 18, 2019

The Fry Roller

Original Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

I wish I could write that this is a painting of a European Starling in Europe, but it is not. European Starlings are everywhere in the United States. They are considered an invasive species, and show no signs of slowing down. In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin purposefully introduced this species into New York’s Central Park because he had a fascination with Shakespeare. A pharmaceutical manufacturer, Schieffelin wanted every bird mentioned by Shakespeare, in this case Henry IV, to be present in the United States. So, on March 6, 1890, he released 60 European Starlings. One year later, he released 40 more. Not knowing just how devastating this decision would be, it is estimated there are more than 200 million of these birds today. They are found in every state, have spilled over into Canada, and southward into Mexico.
It’s not always the case where a species is introduced outside of its original territory and survives. In most cases, the opposite is true. But every now and then, one gets through and wreaks havoc on native species. Off the top of my head, I can name several species that remind me of the European Starling: house sparrows, lionfish, wild hogs, Burmese pythons, common tansy, garlic mustard, common buckthorn, emerald ash borers, zebra mussels, quagga mussels, and Asian carp. 
Problems associated with European Starlings are their prolific breeding, their ability to nest almost anywhere, and their pugnacious nature to overtake other cavity-nesting birds, i.e. bluebirds, purple martins, wrens, flickers and other woodpeckers, all the while finding plenty of food to eat, whether insects or crops. A number of control methods have been used over the years such as pyrotechnics, hawk kites, ultrasonic sounds, owl calls, toxic chemicals, trapping, shooting, electrification, and more. No effective method to control or eradicate this species has been found. In fact, so many studies have been done on this bird, the research available was daunting, to say the least.
It seems this bird is here to stay for quite some time. So, there’s the old saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” After all, humans are still here, so in effect, has this bird not joined us, albeit faultlessly? Even so, it's a quarrelling proposition. To know the Starling is to consider how many other birds it has affected. For example, while building its nest, the Northern Flicker is hard at work while the Starling patiently watches and waits. As soon as the Flicker turns its back, the Starling moves in. The Flicker tries again elsewhere, and the cycle repeats. This happens over and over with other cavity-nesting birds as well.
To appreciate this bird without considering its negative impacts on native species, one might consider its colorful iridescent feathers, its mastery of mimicry, its ability to collectively sky dance (murmuration), and its tenacity for survival. Its bill has been described as “nearly as keen as a meat ax,” superior to that of a crow’s, and is used for probing beetles and earthworms in the ground. Of course, if other food is readily available, why bother digging? I’ve seen a flock of these birds dumpster-diving for Wendy’s French fries in the middle of an April snowstorm, wagging fries in their beaks like Churchill wagged Cubanos. I’ve watched a murmuration in Door County, WI; seen thousands gather on top of road signs at the I35/53 interchange in Duluth, MN; and I once ventured down a residential street to discover what bird was making cheery chirps and tweets in a tree. Yep, a Starling.
I was able to find an ounce of hope for our native species, besides the fact that the Peregrine Falcon is a fierce predator. In 2011, a study was published regarding the design of an artificial nest not preferred by European Starlings. As it turns out, depth matters. I’m talking vertical depth here. When choosing nesting sites, Starlings prefer a certain vertical cavity depth. Humans have discovered that by building artificial nests made out of PVC tubing (27.5 cm length x 9.5 cm inside diameter), Eastern Bluebirds, House Wrens, and Tree Swallows all took to nesting in these homes whereas European Starlings and European House Sparrows, another invader, rarely took occupation, if at all. This smaller design with restricted vertical height could offer more opportunities for native cavity dwellers, leaving their European Starling competitors in the stardust. It’s a small, small victory in an ever-changing world.
This bird is doing what it does best as a species. It's being a bird. The fact that it is here in the United States, out of its normal range, isn't its fault. 

Connor, Jack. The Complete Birder, A Guide to Better Birding. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1988.

European Starling. n.d. New York Invasive Species Information. February 16, 2019. Retrieved from

Hunt, G. (2013). In Murmurations, Starlings Have a Darwinian Dance Partner. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved from

Keys, Gregory C. & Dugatkin, Lee A. (1990). Flock size and position effects on vigilance, aggression, and prey capture in the European starling. The Condor, 92:151-159. Retrieved from

National Geographic Society. (1999) National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. (3rd ed.). Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Pearson, T. Gilbert. Birds of America. Garden City Publishing Co. Inc., Garden City, New York, 1936.

Starlings. n.d. Living with Wildlife. Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. February 16, 2019. Retrieved from

Tyson, L.A., Blackwell, B.F., & Seamans, T.W. (2011). Artificial nest cavity used successfully by native species and avoided by European starlings. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 123(4), 827-830.

Zielinski, S. (2011). The Invasive Species We Can Blame On Shakespeare. Retrieved from

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