A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


I suspect many people would be surprised to learn that the first record of European Starling in California dates only to 1942 (near the Oregon border). Starlings are said to have been introduced to New York's Central Park in 1890 and 1891 by the American Acclimatization Society, according to an interesting article by Steve Mirsky in the June 2008 issue of Scientific American. Most sources attribute the introduction more vaguely to a New York Shakespearean society, but it appears that those involved, whatever their affiliations, were indeed trying to introduce to the US all the birds mentioned in the writings of Shakespeare--which, according to Mr. Mirsky, number no fewer than 600. The American Acclimatization Society appears to have given us the House Sparrow as well. Accounts vary, but anywhere from 60 to 200 Starlings were released in 1890 and 1891, following a couple of earlier, failed attempts to establish the species here in the 1880s. Thus, the Starling moved from its point of introduction into North America on the East Coast to the West Coast of the continent 52 years later at an average annual rate of about 60 miles. Those first birds have multiplied to an estimated 200 million today. According to Bolander and Parmeter, flocks of thousands of Starlings were being reported in Sonoma County by the mid-1950s and those authors refer to a 1969 report of a flock of 1.5 million birds in Santa Rosa. The Starling has been very successful indeed.

The European Starling is common throughout the county in suitable habitat, which includes just about everywhere except densely forested areas and high elevations, but Starlings favor edge habitats (especially open grassy areas with light woodland nearby) and do not shy away from human habitation, being found commonly even in urban areas. They have been associating with human agricultural activities since antiquity (The Birder's Handbook). European Starling breeds throughout the county except the northwestern interior areas, according to the Breeding Bird Atlas.

Seen at a distance, Starlings may simply look black, but they are actually a beautiful black with iridescent purple, blue, and green flashes in it, often dotted with tiny white or buff spots at the ends of fresh feathers. These spots wear away, leaving birds mostly iridescent black at some times of the year, but they are usually present at least to some extent (most prominent during the non-breeding season). Inner primaries and tail feathers often edged with buff. The short, stubby tail on this fairly plump bird is a useful field mark. In full breeding plumage, the bill is bright yellow. In winter plumage it darkens to a dark brownish color. Male birds show blue at the base of the bill in winter plumage, female birds show pink at the base. Dark, proportionately small eyes. Pinkish legs and feet. In flight, the yellow bill may be useful for distinguishing Starlings from the blackbirds they often associate with. Also look for the Starling's almost triangular wings (broad at the base, pointed tips). Juveniles are dull greyish brown, paler at the throat, with vague streaking on the underparts. They can be identified by their size; small, dark eyes; pointed bill; and the stubby tail.

The European Starling is very unusual in that its jaw muscles are designed for more power opening the bill than closing the bill, unlike most birds. It searches for food by thrusting its bill into the ground and then prying open the soil by opening its bill to expose prey. Known also for excellent short-range binocular vision that allows it to see what it digs up. 

Much maligned, but a very pretty bird. Starlings are often bad-mouthed because of their noisy and messy habits (incessantly gurgling and making all manner of odd noises; roosting in large groups with little interest in housekeeping) and blamed for the decline of numerous cavity-nesting native species, although at least one detailed study has suggested recently that only sapsuckers have actually suffered (Mirsky quoting the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website). Despite the bad press, Starlings seem rather dazzlingly pretty birds to me, and they have remarkable powers of mimicry (they are related to the mynas). In fact, Shakespeare's mention of the Starling comes in Henry IV, in which character Hotspur schemes to teach a Starling to repeat only "Mortimer" in order to drive the King crazy (the King has imprisoned Hotspur's brother-in-law Mortimer and refused to release him).

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 99

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 405

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 140

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 366

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 410

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 515-516

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, pp. 488, 489-493

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 307

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 370

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 330

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 24, 27, 80, 89, 97, 99 103, 111

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. XX

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 60

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 312

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 300

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 280

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 362

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 579

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 320

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--European Starling



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


European Starling, Diekmann's Bay Store, Bodega Bay, January 7, 2012

Juvenile European Starling, Bodega Bay, September 14, 2012

European Starling

Sturnus vulgaris

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 1, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County