Starlings

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Common Starling. Photo: Seán Ronayne

Only one species of starling resides in Ireland and it is familiar to all. It often gets a hard time amongst people who like to feed birds in their gardens because of the fact it is large and boisterous and often chases off smaller birds. But, as some of you probably already know this species is an accomplished mimic and because of this alone, it is a species to admire and behold.

With such a rich repertoire of sounds it is difficult to do justice to this master vocalist, so let’s start off simple. One call which is highly reliable is the flight call. This will often be heard when birds are suddenly startled and fly away. Let’s say there is a bird feeding on your lawn outside: you step out, it’s taken by surprise and it flies off. This call, a rather rippling “chyurrr” is what you will hear:

Other calls include a high, forceful “KIK“! or a hoarse grating “khrreyy“, both of which can be heard below:

Now for the good part: the complexity and mimetic diversity of Starling song is hard to match (though there are some contenders which will be covered in the foreseeable future), and to listen to it is a real joy. Firstly the complex structure is something to step back and admire, and then there is the joy of unravelling its mimetic mysteries. What species is it mimicking? Where did it hear these species? If it is mimicking a species not native to Ireland, where has this bird come from? Every individual sings its own tale, and for this reason, despite this being a very common species throughout Ireland, each and every one is something to respect and admire.

So what about the song? Although it is often full of mimicry, it is still very recognisable as that of a starling and has several common sounds repeated throughout. These include loud, hollow clicks, various squeaks and buzzes, like no other Irish bird produces. Another very common sound is a sudden rising and falling “wuu-eee-uuuuuu“. First let’s take a listen to a typical Starling song, and then we’ll break down some mimicry and compare it to the real deal. The following bird is suburban resident, living by the coast. Let’s see if you can detect any mimicry, but don’t forget to enjoy the orchestral feel to this master’s song:

Now, let’s take a closer look at some mimicry, with all excerpts extracted from a single bird from Cobh, Co. Cork:

Mimicry of Eurasian Curlew by Common Starling, followed by actual flight calls by a Eurasian Curlew
Mimicry of Oystercatcher by Common Starling, followed by actual flight calls by an Oystercatcher
Mimicry of Blackbird “chup” calls by Common Starling, followed by actual “chup” calls by a Blackbird
Mimicry of Domestic Chicken by Common Starling.

Even more interesting is that Starlings mimetic capabilities do not stop at just birds. They are also known to mimic alarms, dogs, foxes and even humans!

Mimicry of Fox by Common Starling (recording kindly provided by Harry Hussey, followed by calls from an actual fox.
Mimicry of human speech by Common Starling. The first recording comes from the same excerpt provided by Harry Hussey, and the second is from a bird recorded by Seán in Catalunya. It’s very difficult to discern what words are being mimicked but there is no question that this is mimicry of human speech.

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