Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio)

Cover photo: BirdPix 19074 – Gregg Darling

Identification

The Red-winged Starling is a large, black bird with striking reddish wing feathers. Males and females look similar but can be told apart: the male has an all-black head, whilst the female’s head is grey.

Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio) identification guide.
Red-winged Starling identification. Karis Daniel, Cape Town, Western Cape. 22 November 2020. BirdPix 179611

Both males and females have glossy blueish-black bodies and long tails. Their beaks, legs and feet are also black. When perched, a narrow strip of reddish-orange is just visible on the wing; however this patch of colour becomes much more obvious when the bird is in flight.

Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio) in flight.
Neels Jackson, Glenmore, KwaZulu-Natal. 16 December 2020. BirdPix 152027

This colourful part of the wing contains the primary feathers; the long, strong outer feathers on a bird’s wing. Most species have 9 or 10 primaries. Primaries, together with secondaries, which are the rest of the long feathers between the primaries and the bird’s body, make up the flight feathers. This group of feathers plays an important role in supporting a bird in flight. Beyond keeping them in the air, the Red-winged Starling’s spectacular rust-coloured primaries are a distinctive characteristic, allowing for easy identification when seen swooping overhead.

Red-winged Starlings produce a sweet, clear two-note call and a highly variable whistled song. They also produce an alarmingly raspy scolding sound.

Birds in flight or foraging in a flock often communicate with shortened contact calls, which you can hear in the video below.

Habitat

Red-winged Starlings primarily feed on fruit, insects, arthropods, and nectar, often from aloes or proteas. It’s easy to tell when a starling has been feeding on nectar–its face usually ends up dusted with bright orange pollen (see lower R photo).

Examples of Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio) diet.

Clockwise from top L: Anthony Paton, Northcliff, Gauteng. 1 September 2018. BirdPix 148686; Marius Meiring, Plettenbergbai, Western Cape. 2 February 2021. BirdPix 190019; Zenobia van Dyk, Clanwilliam, Western Cape. 5 June 2020. BirdPix 114600; Dieter Oschadleus, Montagu, Western Cape. 21 October 2020. BirdPix 135428;
Gregg & Desire Darling, Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal. 28 June 2014. BirdPix 8800

Red-winged Starlings forage alone, in pairs, or in small groups, either on the ground or in trees. These birds are opportunists; they are excellent at surviving on whatever types of food are available as well as finding new sources of food. Red-winged Starlings typically prefer rocky, mountainous habitat, but their opportunistic tendencies allow them to easily adapt to life along coastlines and in urban environments.

Examples of Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio) habitat.
Clockwise from top L: Zenobia van Dyk, Middelburg, Eastern Cape. 3 June 2018. BirdPix 54689; Itxaso Quintana, Cape Town, Western Cape.13 June 2020. BirdPix 115365; Dave Kennedy, Hout Bay, Western Cape. 15 October 2018. BirdPix 83017; Roodepoort, Gauteng. 15 March 2020. BirdPix 109240

Distribution

The Red-winged Starling is found across east Africa, all the way from Ethiopia down to South Africa. Within southern Africa, it is common in Zimbabwe and southeast Botswana, and all of eastern and southern South Africa except for the driest interior parts of the Northern Cape.

SABAP2 distribution map for Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio).
SABAP2 distribution map for Red-winged Starling, downloaded 18 November 2021. Details for map interpolation here.

Behaviour

Red-winged Starlings are gregarious and are usually either in pairs or large flocks. These birds are monogamous, meaning that the same male and female stay and breed together for many years. Though well-established pairs will often remain at their favourite nesting site all year, many Red-winged starlings join together in winter to form massive flocks, roosting together on rocky outcrops or in trees. Keep an eye out for these flocks in winter—hundreds of those distinct reddish wings beating at once make for a spectacular sight!

Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio) flock.
Andrew Keys, Hartebeespoort, North West. 8 May 2020. BirdPix 112036

Much like with their diet, Red-winged Starlings are also opportunists when it comes to nesting. Pairs of Red-winged Starlings roosting as part of a flock may also nest close together; however, some pairs take up residency in a particular spot and nest alone each year.

Red-winged Starling (Onychognathus morio) nests.

L: Joan Young, Rustenburg, North West. 2 April 2014. BirdPix 9239;
R: Neels Putter, Cathedral Peak, KwaZulu-Natal. 11 November 2020. BirdPix 140314

Both males and females work together to build a large, cup-shaped nest from sticks, grasses, and mud. The nest is often lined with soft grass and animal hairs. The same nest is often reused for many years, and not always by the same pair of birds! Males and females will carefully refurbish and maintain an “old” nest before using it in the breeding season. Nests may be built in a variety of locations, but are most common on rocky ledges or ledges of buildings.

Further resources

Species text in the first bird atlas (1997)

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Rooivlerkspreeu (Afrikaans); Rufipenne morio (French); Rotschwingenstar (German); Storno alirosse (Italian) Estornino alirrojo (Spanish)

Recommended citation format: Daniel KA 2021. Red-winged Starling Onychognathus morio. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2021/18/11/red-winged-starling-onychognathus-morio/

Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel has been fascinated by birds since she was young, but while she was at university they became a passion. On a study abroad programme in South Africa, she was captivated by the diversity and abundance of bird life she encountered, and ultimately found herself drawn back to study them further. She completed her undergraduate studies at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. In 2017, she also received the opportunity to study wildlife ecology and conservation at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, where she completed her honours research and developed a focus on conservation science. Karis is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.