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Fooled by a bird

A few years ago I was surprised to hear a familiar bird call in my back yard.

The Sora is a fairly common bird here in the summer but is confined to marshy wet areas. What was a Sora doing in the middle of West Fargo?

Turns out it wasn't one at all. It was a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) sounding like one. This capacity for mimicry was illustrated again last week. While near the City of Fargo's compost pile, I heard a Western Chorus Frog. We set a record high that day but I didn't think it was that warm. Guess what? A Starling had fooled me again. It shouldn't have surprised me, because over the years I have heard these birds copycat the calls of Red-tailed Hawks, Killdeer, Blue Jays, and many others. Why not an amphibian too?

In the 19th century these birds were happily going about their business in Eurasia and North Africa. Centuries of living among people had conditioned these birds quite snugly for city life. Around 1890, it is thought, a group of people in New York City set out to introduce all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to the New World. About 100 European Starlings were released in Central Park. Today they cover nearly the entire continent and it is estimated that the North American population is in the neighborhood of 200 million. All can trace their ancestry to the first 100 birds.

Starlings are black-feathered (though not a Blackbird) with a green and purple sheen. In the fall, white spots adorn the feather tips giving it a dense polka-dot appearance. It's long, pointed bill is dark now but becomes yellow closer to spring. This six-inch bird has a noticeably short, squared tail and pointed wings. Once a person learns to recognize it in flight, it is almost unmistakable. I say 'almost' because Meadowlarks and Waxwings appear similar. In a way it looks like a small flying football.

It nests in cavities and seeks out appropriately sized holes aggressively. Any hollow space is susceptible to a nesting attempt; trees, clotheslines, martin houses, company signs, etc. Because of this habit, it is thought to have a negative impact on native cavity nesters like Woodpeckers, Bluebirds and the like.

So accustomed it is to human-altered habitats, it is nearly impossible to find one in forests, desert, or wilderness areas. But in town or on the farm watch out. This species is highly colonial. They form impressive groups in all seasons, even while breeding. Flocks of over a million birds are reported regularly.

The European Starling is not universally loved by most people, including some bird watchers. Yes, even among the binocular-toting crowd there is a hierarchy. Fair or not, Starlings are placed somewhere down the list where Pigeons and House Sparrows reside. Plus its song is nothing to brag about. When not aping other calls, both sexes will belt out a variety of squeaks, whistles and squawks.

But it's in agriculture where most of the bird's issues resound. This bird will eat just about anything from seeds to insects. Farm fields, feedlots and landfill sites are just a few of the preferred dining facilities for Starlings. Despite the fact that it eats large quantities of insects, the possible benefit is likely offset by its habit of pulling up seedling grain and eating the seeds. In addition to grains, this species is noted for its assault on grape, olive and cherry crops. Strangely, it is reported the former Soviet Union erected 25 million boxes to encourage the nesting of Starlings. Under what circumstances or around what crops, I don't know.

Like them or not, European Starlings are here to stay. Efforts to remove or kill them are met with limited and short-lived success. Americans may be neglecting a resource however. A few European countries harvest this bird for food.

Oh, if anyone is looking to find one, check out the Fargo landfill where thousands of European Starlings can be found on any given day.