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Huge flocks of European Starlings call region home during winter months

Jennifer Sprouse • Jan 14, 2013 at 10:53 AM

If you’ve noticed a loud flock of black birds frequenting your neighborhood this winter, it could be nature’s nuisance birds known as European Starlings making their winter roost.

According to Fred Alsop, professor in the department of biological sciences at East Tennessee State University, the type of starlings found in East Tennessee originate from an old world species from western Europe.

He said the story of how the birds came to be in the United States dates back to around 1890, when a Linnean society wanted to bring starlings over because they were studying Shakespeare’s sonnets and decided it would be fun to have the birds he talked about in his writings in the country.

“New York in 1890 released 60 birds and then in 1891 released 40 more and it seems that our millions of starlings in North America came from those first 100 that were successfully released in New York,” Alsop said. “By 1920, they were as far south as Tennessee, 30 years later.”

And Tennessee continues to be a popular spot for the birds to winter roost, as they gravitate into the area neighborhoods and buildings by the thousands. Recently, areas of east Johnson City have seen an influx of the birds.

While the birds are pretty small bodied, averaging around 7 inches from the tip of their bill to their tail, the birds have been known to cause some problems.

“Starlings like to nest around where people live, rather they’re not woodland species. They’re more of an urban species,” Alsop said. “They ... nest around people’s houses and sometimes because of the numbers of starlings they are fairly messy around the nest, so there (are) often a lot of droppings from the young around the nest, as well as droppings from the adult.”

Alsop said not only can the continuous droppings from the birds affect the water supply, other health problems could result.

He said histoplasmosis, a respiratory disease mostly associated with poultry, can also be transferred to humans by birds that flock in large numbers.

Known to be noisy in packs, Alsop said starlings are classified as songbirds with numerous vocalizations.

“Most of them are just starling songs, but it also has the ability to mimic other birds,” he said. “The ones that have been transported to North America also imitate some North American birds.”

Alsop said starlings are mostly insect eaters, but also are omnivorous and will feed on both plant and animal material.

“In the winter flocks, big numbers might impact some agricultural areas,” he said. “It’s not a big impact on agriculture.”

As an aggressive species, starlings also compete with other native birds for cavities to nest in.

“Any cavity that has a hole big enough for them to get in, anything that’s more than an inch and a half in diameter, they’ll go in and make a nest site out of it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a natural cavity in a tree or whether it’s a man-made cavity in something like a bluebird box ... just about any hole will work.”

Alsop said one reason why starlings are found in town so often is because there are many nooks and crannies, as well as houses and buildings where they can breed.

“If you’ve got a hole in the side of your house ... under an overhang especially, starlings will get inside,” he said.

And while native birds are protected by state and federal laws from being eliminated, Starlings are not.

“Because it’s not a native species, it’s not protected by state or federal laws. You just have to be careful of a couple of things. One, if you live inside the city that has an ordinance against ... shooting wildlife or discharging firearms, you might have a problem there,” Alsop said. “The problem is ... that it’s not the only black bird. We’ve got a number of native black bird species, all of which are protected by state laws, so you have to be careful to make sure that it’s a starling that you’re trying to eliminate.”

According to Johnson City code 11-123 regarding the discharge of firearms, no person shall discharge any firearm, including a gun, pistol and rifle, except for law enforcement, matters of self defense, during a training or demonstration at a firing range, upon written consent from the board of commissioners and using a shotgun loaded with shells with a number two shot or smaller with the point of discharge not being on any street, public place or within 110 yards of any building in the city.

It also states that “no person shall fire any preparation when gunpowder is an ingredient, or which consists wholly of the same, or make any bonfire in or upon any street of public place within the city.”

To prevent continued problems with Starlings, Alsop suggests closing up any holes where the bird could nest.

According to the article “Management of Blackbird and Starling Winter Roost Problems in Kentucky and Tennessee,” published by the Vertebrate Pest Conference Proceedings collection at DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska-Lincoln, another method to permanently rid your property of the birds would be to “alter the habitat by removing the majority of the understory roosting vegetation (small trees, vines, and shrubs).”

The article also suggested the use of visual and sonic devices to frighten the birds into leaving the area or yard.

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