Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Identification

The Common (or European) Starling Sturnus vulgaris can be identified by its short tail, pointed head, triangular-shaped wings, and pale speckles on its wings and body. Common Starlings look black in colour, when seen at a distance, but at closer range they are glossy with a sheen of purple and green (this is known as iridescence). Adult birds have blackish bills when not breeding and yellow bills when breeding.

In the air, their flight is often fast and direct. On the ground they move about confidently, often at a run. They have quite a range of vocalizations.

Main photo: BirdPix 26351 – Stuart Shearer, Greyton, Western Cape, 05 February 2013. Inset photo: BirdPix 29270 – Dieter Oschadleus, Cape Town, Western Cape, 03 September 2016.

Juvenile birds are grey-brown in colour with speckling only appearing at about one year of age.

Main photo: BirdPIx 7111 – Doug Harebottle, Cape Town, Western Cape, 23 March 2014. Inset photo: BirdPix 34230 – Dieter Oschadleus, Cape Town, Western Cape, 08 January 2017.

Habitat

In South Africa, they are mainly found in and around cities and towns. Their favoured habitats are grass lawns and sports fields where they often look for food, mainly invertebrates, by probing into the ground with their sharp bills.

Common Starling foraging on a lawn: BirdPix 54668 – C Meyer, Stellenbosch, Western Cape, 03 June 2018.

Distribution

Common Starlings are native to Eurasia, north Africa, and Japan, but were introduced to Australia, New Zealand, North America, Argentina, and South Africa. They are considered a serious agricultural pest, in some of these regions, but not so much in South Africa. They were introduced to Cape Town in 1897 by Cecil John Rhodes. The story of their range expansion is here.

They mainly occur in the southern half of South Africa, especially along the coastline, and they are by far most commonly found in urban and agricultural areas. Common Starlings are always closely associated with humans. They do well in urban areas.

SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Robin-Chat, downloaded 18 March 2022. Details for map interpretation can be found here.

There are recent observations of Common Starlings potentially increasing their range in Namibia too. You can read about it in Biodiversity Observations.

Behaviour

Common Starlings are gregarious and noisy birds. They are often found in pairs or small groups. Flock size is highly variable but they can form massive, noisy flocks (known as murmurations), especially near their roosting sites.

Noisy birds! Left photo: BirdPix 123222 – Gerald Gaigher, Jongensfontein, Western Cape, 01 August 2020. Right photo: BirdPix 5369 – Dawie De Swardt, Barkley East, Eastern Cape, 13 November 2013.
Gregarious birds. BirdPix 155118 – Gerald Gaigher, Paarl, Western Cape, 05 February 2021

They mainly eat insects and other invertebrates which they supplement with fruit, seeds and nectar. Common Starlings do most of their foraging on the ground, plucking up food items or probing the soil for underground prey. 

They build an untidy nest in a natural or artificial cavity, during breeding season (September to December). They lay about four or five glossy, pale blue eggs, which take two weeks to hatch. The young remain in the nest for another three weeks before fledging.

Common Starling eggs in a nest. Photo by Mike Richey

Further Resources

Species text from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

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

More common names: Europese Spreeu (Afrikaans); Étourneau Sansonnet (French); Star (German); Spreeuw (Dutch).

Recommended citation format: Loftie-Eaton M and Daniel KA 2022. Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris. Bird Feeder Project. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available Online at http://thebdi.org/2022/03/22/common-starling-sturnus-vulgaris/

Bird Feeder Project: Karis Daniel & Megan Loftie-Eaton
Bird Feeder Project: Karis Daniel & Megan Loftie-Eaton
The Bird Feeder Project is a BDI citizen science initiative involving school learners and youth eco-clubs. Learners are taught a scientific protocol for doing 10-minute watches and recording the species they see, in the order they see them. The Bird Feeder Project includes an online identification guide to about 30 of the species seen in gardens in Cape Town. Students will learn how to upload their cellphone photos into the BirdPix section of the Virtual Museum, where they will be curated for posterity. The 10-minute watches will rapidly grow into a valuable monitoring database. Karis Daniel is the Project Coordinator and put together the identification guide, Megan Loftie-Eaton helped with the species texts.