Even if you are not interested in birds you’re likely to know a dozen or a dozen and a half species. Robins, crows, bluebirds, a few ducks, a swan, some hawks, bald eagles, an owl and, if you live in the western United States, the magpie. And then there is the starling, more precisely the European starling, pretty much wherever you like in North America.
The starling, one of those black birds, is an exotic — not native to our continent. In 1890 there was this Shakespeare devotee living in New York City who was determined to enlighten the New World with every one of Great Britain’s birds mentioned by Shakespeare by introducing them to the New World. He released a hundred pairs of European starlings in Central Park. “Where else?” He might have chosen the somewhat more attractive pink starling, but then, William Shakespeare wasn’t specific to species.
For trivia buffs “he” was Eugene Schieffelin. He released 60 pairs of birds on March 16, 1890, and 40 pairs of birds on April 25, 1891.
Starlings immediately and enthusiastically took advantage of the opportunities offered them by a whole new continent. In fewer than 50 years starlings appeared on the Pacific Coast, not just as outliers but as settled citizens. Now, of course, despite some hapless attempts to control or eradicate them they are part of our lists of birds.
It’s another example of what an introduced organism faced with new opportunity can do, especially if it has no natural predators.
The starling, the rock-dove pigeon, the house sparrow and nowadays the Eurasian collared dove, all exotic, have conquered this large land mass partly by driving some native birds from traditional nesting sites, with consequent reductions, often severe, of populations of those native species.
The starling is not a true blackbird, but it is blackish and usually illustrated with true blackbirds — Brewer’s blackbird, brown-headed cowbird, red-winged blackbird, etc. — for publishing convenience. The starling is the short-tailed “blackbird.” It looks triangular in flight. Flight is swift, direct, often with other starlings. Slightly smaller than a robin (about 8 inches in length) with a large sharp bill that turns yellow in spring breeding time. Read: now. Voice is varied, from a harsh “tsseeer” to whistles and clicks. They often mimic other birds or manmade repetitive sounds.
Starlings return early in spring, often beating native species to nesting holes. Starlings are the short-tailed “blackbird,” as I mentioned. Grackles are long-tailed. Brewer’s blackbirds and cowbirds have tails of medium length.
Where starlings are prolific (Europe, some southeastern United States) they sometimes form into large gatherings and indulge in spectacular coordinated aerial maneuvers.
Field Notes: Plants, trees and grasses are greening up, leaving out and starting to flower according to their time. Some aspen trees have catkins down to here. Other trees have just budded out, and some aspens are still dormant and look to stay that way.
Migrating birds follow general schedules of return to the valley, but there are variations. If you’re going to travel perhaps thousands of miles, you may hit a spell of bad weather or, conversely, a series of favorable traveling weather and find yourself too far north too soon or hunkered down in some desolate little town with one broken-down motel and a saloon full of yahoos.
For example, my pocket guide says osprey return to the Hole on April 1. A few ospreys did show up on April 1, but then there seemed to be almost a week before any more reports came in.
Many of us watch for returning birds in spring, and many of us make note of the first returning bluebird or robin or great blue heron. For those inclined to report their sightings there’s word of mouth, making notes on calendars, getting their observation to Nature Mapping Jackson Hole and bragging at the coffee klatch. To get your observation on Nature Mapping’s database, look up the website NatureMappingJH.org or through the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation at JHWildlife.org.
Now for some observations I’ve gotten in the last month or so: On March 16 Mary Moreno saw a northern goshawk, which took a collared dove. Starting with Loy Kiefling’s turkey vulture in South Park on March 23, up to three vultures are being frequently seen now.
On March 22 Bernie McHugh noticed a fox sparrow in Wilson at his feeder. By March 24 he had 82 common redpolls, and on March 30 he had three chipping sparrows. The redpolls built up to 91 birds, which vanished and spread out around the valley with a few being seen still this week.
A group of common redpolls foraged in the rocks near the National Museum of Wildlife Art on April 1. That report came from Devon Pieper, who gave a nice description of the redpolls.
On Sunday a short ride north of Jackson revealed meadowlarks. Osprey and osprey nests with Canada geese. Sandhill canes seen and heard (Alice Richter) and building numbers of great blue herons. Cassin’s finches have arrived on Sunday.
On a sunny spring morning both a least chipmunk and one ground squirrel came up for air, but they don’t seem to care for rain.
Breaking news: On Sunday afternoon Bru Wicks photographed a male ring-necked pheasant on Spring Gulch Road.
Bert Raynes © 2016