Outdoors/Adventure

Alaska’s starling population continues to grow. How can we stop them from becoming a complete nuisance?

Starlings in Alaska? Yes, we have them. They are everywhere south of the Brooks Range. Starlings rank No. 1 as the most hated bird in America. Why is that? They are a good-looking bird with iridescent feathers. Starlings are smart. They belong to the same bird family as mynas and make good pets.

There is a downside to these colorful, noisy birds. Big raucous flocks can take over bird feeders, cause crop damage and steal nests and nest locations from other less numerous avian populations. In North America, starlings have become mostly an urban bird. Flocks numbering in the thousands roost on buildings. One can only imagine the mess. Agricultural lands and bordering forests are not only damaged by huge flocks of feeding birds, but also by the accumulation of droppings, some up to twelve inches deep. That build-up can be toxic to plants.

The European starling or common starlings are not native to North America. The story goes that a group of guys brought one hundred birds to New York City in 1890. Their idea was to bring in every bird species that was mentioned by William Shakespeare to America. Reality is close.

Eugene Schieffelin, president of The American Acclimatization Society, (only in New York ...), brought sixty European starlings to New York and released them. About the same time, The Portland Songbird Club released thirty-five pairs of common starlings in Portland, Oregon. The Portland birds disappeared in 1902. Starlings showed up again in Portland in 1940. These were European starlings, undoubtedly descendants of the N.Y. birds.

The expansion of these adaptable birds’ territory has become more rapid over time. It is over 5,000 miles in a straight line from Central Park to Fairbanks, Alaska. Starlings were first recorded in Fairbanks in 1960. There were breeding birds in Fairbanks by 1966. Delta Junction had small flocks of starlings on some farms by the mid-70s. Anchorage birds were later in their range expansion, but it likely they were around the city a couple of decades ago.

Starlings are an invasive species. That means they can displace our native birds. If the starling population stayed small, that would not be much of an issue. Consider that the original 60 birds has morphed into 150 million birds in just over 100 years. Most folks would not want them kicking swallows out of their birdhouses or taking over woodpecker nest holes.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has starlings on their invasive species list. That means there is no closed season and no limit on the numbers a person can take. The idea is to get a handle on the starling population before it really takes hold. Good luck on that! It seems they are nesting on most of the stop lights in Anchorage. Starlings will nest in any hole or crevasse. They like dryer vents and holes in buildings.

ADF&G trapped and euthanized starlings around Anchorage in past attempts to control the population, but history in the Lower 48 shows little success with this method. Unless you can convince hunters that these birds are good to eat, it isn’t likely that enough folks will shoot birds just for the sake of shooting.

However, most of us know about the “four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie and set before the king — when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing.” These were likely starlings, not true blackbirds. People ate them, and still do in some places. There are some decent-sounding recipes on the web. Back in the days before the Migratory Bird Treaty in 1918, robins were market hunted for food. Starlings are only slightly smaller than a robin.

Realistically, the best way to limit or reduce the starling population is not by hunting them. The better way, proven in European locations, is to limit their nesting locations. Anchorage stoplights need to have the holes on top screened. Anchorage buildings must cover holes and orifices with good screens. Plastic screens don’t work. Those homeowners who have birdhouses need to take care that the hole size in the birdhouse is right for the bird they wish to attract.

Tree swallows can fit through a 1¼″ hole. A better design might be a slot hole ⅞″ wide x 2½″ high for swallows. That will keep starlings and house sparrows out. Chickadees prefer a 1⅛″ hole. Downy woodpeckers like 1¼″ holes. Starlings can’t use any of these smaller size entries. One of the potential problems is with northern flickers and sapsuckers. Starlings do fit into the nest holes of these birds. There is no easy solution for this that I can see. A good thing; woodpecker species are not quite as urban as starlings, competition at most locations might not be a big problem.

Starlings are definitely on their way to becoming an issue in Alaska’s largest city. What can residents do? Keep suet off of your bird feeder in summer months. Keep your trash covered and not in plastic bags where birds can get to them. Push for community involvement on devising ways to limit nesting locations around the city. And remember; there were “four and 20 blackbirds baked into a pie.”

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