Bird song (21) – Starling

Starling. Photo: Tim Melling

Starlings are wonderful birds – take a look at one and they just look superb. But they sing too, often while waving their wings in a motion similar to a butterfly-stroke swimmer. Can you sing and wave your arms about? Maybe, now try it perched on a telephone wire!

It’s a strange song, in some ways a something-and-nothing of a song. But heard while watching the bird windmilling its wings and puffing out its throat feathers it seems pretty good.

This one is from Luxembourg:

And here’s one from Berlin, Germany:

And another from surrey, UK:

Whistles and clicks, whistles and clicks, often with a long modulated whistle and periods of multiple clicks. I know what it sounds like but I find it hard to describe, and sometimes I pause for a moment when I hear one sing before thinking ‘Of course, a Starling’.

But one of the things about Starlings is that they are great mimics. I have walked down the street and hear a Curlew call , only to look up and see a Starling on a TV aerial being that Curlew. Fooled again! But where did the starling learn that call – not on my street!

If I am to record Green Woodpecker for the day on my lockdown garden list I have to persuade myself that it isn’t really one of the local Starlings doing the yaffle call – they are very good at it and I hear Starling-woodpeckers more often than I hear Woodpecker-woodpeckers!

Shakespeare knew of mimicry in the Starling as he gets Hotspur to say:

He said he would not ransom Mortimer, Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he lies asleep, And in his ear I’ll hollo “Mortimer.”

Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him To keep his anger still in motion.

https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/henry4pt1/page_43/ Henry IV, pt1

Here are some examples of Starlings being mimics. This first one is a very convincing Blackbird but there is also Swallow, GS Woodpecker, Golden Oriole and Swallow in there according to the recorder of the song:

This one is being a (Red?) Kite and a Buzzard :

Here is a Starling being a Common Rosefinch:

And here is another, from Norway, being, it seems to me, a Lapwing, a car alarm, a Blackbird and maybe a dog as well as lots of other unrecognisable, unguessable things too:

Impressive! If you can pinch all those songs from others then maybe you don’t need much more than clicks and whistles of your own.

But why mimic? and how are the mimicked songs learned, and where? I’d quite like to know, but I can listen in awe whether I know or not.

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10 Replies to “Bird song (21) – Starling”

  1. Starlings seem to attract an undeserved degree of dislike in many quarters. Lots of people dislike them taking 'more than their share' at bird tables, for example, but I think they are super birds and love listening to their whistles and clicks.

    The models for mimicry extend beyond other bird species and when trim-phones were a thing many a person was fooled into thinking they had an incoming call by a local starling that had incorporated the ring-tone into its song.

    As to where the birds learn the songs that they mimic the marsh warbler is a particularly fascinating example. The males of this species are very prolific mimics and interestingly incorporate the songs both of european species they will have encountered in the breeding season and African species that they will have encountered following migration, indicating that the sensitive period for learning songs extends well beyond the nestling stage into their first winter.

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  2. I recall writing this extract, almost a year ago:

    I was sat in bed this morning, reading the paper (well, the online version), and vaguely aware of birdsong flowing in through the open window. The sounds were more varied than might be expected, not because of a huge number of choristers, but more for the exploits of a particular Starling. It is possible that this bird's mission in life is to bamboozle my brain, but today it overplayed its hand. One short and unmelodic refrain was clearly a Corncrake, sadly, a species so unlikely in the environs of Tense Towers that I instantly knew it wasn't a Corncrake, but a mimicking Starling. My very next thought was... "How does it know a Corncrake's call?!"

    I wondered whether the Starling was a visitor from somewhere with calling Corncrake, or if the local flock has an oral tradition, passed down through the generations since Corncrakes were breeding in the area.

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    1. I wish I could remember the source of the anecdote: starlings nesting in an outbuilding that for generations mimicked a two-stroke engine which had long fallen into disuse.

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  3. The amount of times I think I've heard a Buzzard overhead only to realise seconds later it's a starling on the chimney pot are countless.
    And I thought it was just me they made a fool out off!

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  4. Yes they can perfect almost anything I think.
    When we were farming we just had a landline phone in the house and I would guess the farm buildings about 50 metres away.the wife could whistle really loud if I was needed on the phone and a Starling learnt the exact tone and just as loud.Of course it caused some chaos as no way of telling which it was.

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  5. I too have recently been enjoying a starling using mimicry in my back garden .It has been doing perfect songs and calls of a Blackbird,Buzzard Lapwing and barking dog

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  6. Do thrushes mimic? I could have sworn I heard one sounding like a tawny owl today in amongst it's song.

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  7. Thanks Mark, that last recording is both wonderful and bizarre. I could hear carrion crow, black headed gull and a horse in there somewhere, as well as the car alarm. Oh and also a tawny owl's 'ker-wick'. They're that good they should have their own TV programme. Any suggestions for a title?

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  8. Curlew calling! Just back from an early morning stroll around the centre of Clitheroe. I almost put 'curlew heard' on BirdTrack and then saw the resident starling(s), so it is not just in Northants. Happy Easter Mark.

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  9. They are amazing, as everyone's comments suggest. Can anyone point to a good summary of any academic research on the topic? Suppose I could internet search, but a recommendation from one of you knowledgeable people would be much quicker.

    And Happy Easter to everyone.

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