Debra’s frantic call reverberates down the hall and into my office: “David!” I jump from my chair and start to head her way, but before I take a step, she says: “A starling is attacking the phoebe nest!” I turn, look out the office window, and see the starling, its open beak like a pair of yellow daggers, jabbing at a phoebe darting back and forth between its nest and the starling. Just as I’m thinking there’s no time for me to intervene, the phoebe’s mate smashes beak first into the side of the starling, sending feathers floating down to the ground. Stunned, the defeated starling flies off.
We do a little jig, celebrating with the phoebes in their victory over the starling. Disaster avoided; all is well. But as the phoebe’s nesting season progressed, all was not well. The marauding starling returned again and again. We didn’t witness an encounter like the first, but we watched the starling harass and stress the ever-vigilant phoebes for weeks. Finally, the 5 healthy phoebe chicks fledged - a relief to both the phoebe parents and us.
Debra is a very tender soul; an attribute I both love and admire. In our 24 years together, we have tried to find non-violent solutions to human-animal conflicts, and we have chosen to avoid deadly force. The European starling, however, has been a real challenge, interfering with wood duck houses, competing for native woodpecker tree-cavity nesting sites, and now, the phoebe nesting platform. Debra has had enough. “We’re not going through this again,” she declared. “I’m afraid this new approach will be up to you to implement. It’s a threshold I can’t yet cross.” As for me, a country farm boy, it’s a threshold I passed long ago!
According to Wikipedia, Eugene Schieffelin released 60 European starlings in New York City’s Central Park in 1890. He released another 40 birds in 1891. Schieffelin wanted to introduce all birds mentioned in the plays of William Shakespeare to North America. There are now an estimated 150 million European starlings in North America.
European starlings like to live around people. They like buildings with openings, nooks and crannies to nest in, and large mowed lawns to hunt for grubs and other insects. Even with our small yard, we get a pair every spring nesting in the dead black locust trees near our pole barn. Initially, I didn’t think this would be a problem because there are dozens of woodpecker holes in the dead locust trees. No big deal if one is occupied by a starling. But over the years, I have discovered, it is a problem. Starlings don’t like competition. And every year, they ousted flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers that tried to nest in the area. Only the red-headed woodpeckers were consistently successful in defending their nests
That’s all in the past now, I think. I have the green light. This year will be different.
I bought a starling nest box trap. It’s like a big bluebird house with a two inch hole opening and a trap door that closes after the bird enters. I attached it to a corner downspout, right under the house eave and visible from our office window. I only set the trap when I was home, which was not that often. I caught six starlings (5 males, 1 female) in March/early April. I also caught three male bluebirds, which were all promptly released unharmed.
Results? The phoebe’s raised 5 young without any starling harassment. For the first time, we had fledgling flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers in the dead locust trees near the pole barn. And I can’t forget the red-headed woodpecker. I recently saw my first black-headed woodpecker (a young red-headed woodpecker) in the dead locust tree area too.
Debra acknowledges the bittersweet results, but sees my trapping efforts as the lesser of two evils. I, too, am happy with the results, and hope the trend will continue. I see the European starling as just another invasive species from a long list the restoration practitioner has to deal with. Trapping starlings is not a necessary evil, but rather a necessary management task to offset the ecological ignorance of our past.
I wonder what Eugene Schieffelin would say today about his European starling introduction? Would he be appalled at me trapping his beloved Shakespearean bird? No way of knowing, of course, but my direction is clear. Armed with this new management tool, the starling nest box trap, I am hopeful I can give the local wood duck population a boost next spring!