Starlings are here to remind us of Shakespeare (and Hitchcock)


European starlings above F Street NW, DC


On an autumn evening, if you stroll up Ninth Street NW between F and G, you may hear the eerily high-pitched cacophony of thousands of European starlings in the trees above. The sound is so strange that you might stop, look up, and think, “How interesting!,” until you notice all the bird poop raining on you. For this, you can blame William Shakespeare. His brief mention of a starling in Henry IV inspired New York Shakespeare fanatic Eugene Schieffelin to import 100 starlings from Europe and set them free in Central Park. That was in the 1890s. Now, those birds’ descendants in North America number more than 200 million.

European starlings can be aggressive, sometimes bullying other birds out of their nests. Their huge flocks, while beautiful, can collide with airplanes and cause fatal crashes. They can spread Salmonella and E. coli in cattle, and histoplasmosis in humans. Ted Gup in the New York Times summarized DC’s  attempts to control its starling flash mobs:

“In 1948 the superintendent of sanitation in Washington, D.C., having failed to rout the birds with balloons and artificial owls, tried exposing them to itching powder. The police used mechanical hawks. An Interior Department consultant proposed placing grease around starling feeding sites, hoping they would track the gook back to their nests and cover their own eggs, preventing them from hatching.

“Later, electricians laid live wires across the Corinthian columns of the Capitol and other prominent buildings to discourage starlings from roosting. They simply took up residence in whatever nearby structures were not hot-wired. When the White House grounds were plagued, speakers were set up to broadcast recordings of starlings rasping out their alarm call. (The birds vacated to sycamore trees on Pennsylvania Avenue, whose branches were then smeared with chemicals to irritate their feet.)”

Despite all those efforts, this invasive species is apparently here to stay. Hey, at least European starlings are pretty.

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European starlings fly over DC

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Come spring, tourists aren’t the only ones flocking to the Tidal Basin. Starlings like to nest in the cherry trees’ cavities.

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According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Starlings will eat nearly anything.”  Here a starling eats fried chicken on R Street NW

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In spring and summer, starling feathers take on a lovely iridescence. This starling was sight-seeing near the White House.

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A wild starling in Rock Creek Park about to get banded at the Smithsonian Bird Fest.

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Did I mention starlings were aggressive? I came across these two on the Library of Congress lawn.

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One more shot of the starling fight club on the Library of Congress lawn.

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For more, check out John Kelly’s wonderful Washington Post columns about the starlings of Ninth Street and that time the House of Representatives restaurant served starling pie, and the US Department of Agriculture’s European Starlings: A Review of An Invasive Species with Far-Reaching Impacts.

All images by angela n.

angela n.

angela lives in DC. When she is not working or taking pictures, she is very busy binge-watching the panda cam. All opinions are her own.

  • I learned a lot about European starlings. Amazing fun fact on how they got to the U.S.