Tag Archives: European starling

Dark Star(ling)

In tandem with my Red-breasted Nuthatch box, I’ve been running my Northern Flicker box cam again this year. Because Youtube isn’t set up to do more than one livestream per account, however, I’ve been running it on a separate account.

Early in the season there was a lot of activity at the flicker box. On one cold, snowy day there were even 2 male flickers fighting over a female who had taken shelter from the weather in the box. I watched the males try to grab the female by the beak and pull her out of the box, perhaps to mate?, then chase each other around and around the catalpa tree in my neighbor’s yard.

Then things quieted down and it seemed all the neighborhood flickers had found their mates and nesting spots. Recently though, a male flicker has returned to the box. It’s getting late in the season, but 2 years ago it was about this time when my last successful flicker pair laid their eggs, so it could happen again this year. He has a lady, which I was able to confirm after seeing them both fly from the box to a nearby tree and mate, so only time will tell.

I’m glad the male flicker returned to the box on Monday because on Sunday he was attacked by a European Starling that tried to steal the box.

WARNING: The following footage may be disturbing to watch. 

In the last few years, starlings have only shown up in my yard very early (generally February and March), but then move on. I don’t tend to hear or see them most of the year in my neighborhood. I think that’s why my flickers were successful 2 years ago; they nested later when starlings had already chosen their nesting spots. Perhaps this starling then was desperate for a nest cavity. Maybe that’s why he chose the ambush approach rather than trying to lure the flicker out of the box.

As I’ve mentioned before, starlings are an invasive species brought over from Britain. They co-evolved with the European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) and the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) and, as a result, have developed deadly weapons (sharp, dagger-like bills, long legs, and claws) and aggressive tactics, to compete for nest cavities with those woodpeckers since they’re unable to build their own.

Our native woodpeckers didn’t have to deal with nest predators like the starling when they evolved so they don’t have the killer instinct to protect their homes, but nesting later in the season may be an adaptation to dealing with the starlings, as has been postulated before.

So far so good on the starling front, though I remain cautious. I removed the nesting material the victorious starling placed into the box on Sunday (bits of native yarrow and blue flax) along with adding more woodchips and I haven’t seen or heard any starlings since.

More as it develops!


The Waiting Game

2 birds 1 box
Not sure what’s going on here. The male (top) was in the box, then the female entered the box. He appeared to either be trying to mate with her or keep her in the box. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Over the past week or so, the activity at my Flicker box has seemed to drop off considerably. Rather than spending most of the day at the box, drumming, and loudly calling (or napping!), the male Flicker has spent some time here and there just chilling at the bottom of the box or hanging silently at the opening staring out. I have noticed he and a female copulating on a nearby tree a handful of times. Maybe he doesn’t need to be so loud or insistent now that he’s scored a mate?

Female flicker
Female Northern Flicker in nesting box. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The female has been in the box a few times now too (and has hung out on the top of the box or the front of the box while the male has been inside), but I’m still waiting on her to take up residence. According to the second Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas, Northern Flickers nest between April 10 and August 15, so there’s still plenty of time for them to start a family.

European Starling in Northern Flicker nest box. Photo by Jamie Simo.

I’ve seen Starlings near the box a couple times, and once one of them in the box, but so far I haven’t seen them for the last few days. I’m not letting my guard down though. I’ve learned my lesson on that!



Gone for Good

The last couple of days I haven’t had much time to monitor the flicker box and I didn’t see either Beaky or Flick. The day before yesterday, I found out why: European starlings. I chased one out of the box on Wednesday evening and when I pulled it down I saw that, between Monday and Wednesday, they had evicted the flickers and built a nest.

The beginnings of a starling nest. Note the dried grass and greenery. Photo by Jamie Simo.
The beginnings of a starling nest. Note the dried grass and greenery. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Like some other species of birds, male starlings will build a nest to attract a mate. For example, house wrens will build several stick nests and will show a female around them to choose the one she likes best. In the starling’s case, greenery in the nest is apparently a big draw for the female. So, to add insult to injury, not only did the starlings evict the flickers, they also ravaged the plants I planted. I found bits of yarrow, coneflower, and flax in the nest I cleaned out of the box.

The floor of the bird house where the flickers had pecked out a depression for their eggs. Photo by Jamie Simo.
The floor of the bird house where the flickers had pecked out a depression for their eggs. Photo by Jamie Simo.

I think I saw Beaky once yesterday after I took the box down for good. She never came back and I haven’t seen either her or Flick since. I’m really upset because it was clear they were close to laying eggs. Not only were they trying to enlarge the nest hole, but they’d chipped out a round depression in the bottom of the house so their eggs would have some place to rest.

I may not be the landlord of baby flickers this year, but I’m not going to let this happen again next time. I plan to do some starling trapping. Stay tuned.

House Hunting for Flickers

My fiance and I moved to Colorado in February of this year and by March we were lucky enough to move into our very first house. We weren’t the only ones doing some home shopping though. One of my favorite things about spring is the mating display of the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), a large, handsome woodpecker with a black collar and a spotted breast. In early spring, flickers descend on many suburban neighborhoods across the lower 48, particularly those with big, well-established trees.

Male red-shafted northern flicker. Photo by JoanGeeAZ, AZ, Tucson, November 2008. Red-shafted flickers are found in the western United States.
Female yellow-shafted northern flicker. Photo by Jamie Simo. Yellow-shafted flickers are found in the eastern United States.
Two male yellow-shafted northern flickers dueling. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Males fill the air with their “wicka wicka” cries as they drum their bills repeatedly against the trees in hopes of attracting a mate. To give themselves a greater edge in their wooing, some flicker males have adapted to take advantage of the metal guttering on our houses, using it like a kind of megaphone to announce their fitness even farther afield. If another male dares to challenge him, the two (or sometimes more!) males will chase each other up, down, and around tree limbs and trunks, bobbing their heads at each other and posturing.

Even before we’d unpacked all of our boxes, I decided I wanted to extend an open invitation for a flicker family to move into our yard. Northern flickers are cavity dwellers and so will readily use birdhouses. There are a number of birdhouses designed especially for northern flickers and I ended up buying one designed by Coveside. One of the cool things about that birdhouse is that it comes with a bag of wood chips. When flickers excavate a cavity, they leave wood chips in to line their nests. According to articles, such as this one by Karen Wiebe, flickers prefer south-facing nesting cavities because they’re less energetically expensive to keep eggs warm, so I hung the bird house on the back of my house.  Then I waited.

It took about a week before a male flicker came calling. He pushed some of the wood chips out of the house and would either cling to the birdhouse’s opening and drum on its front or sit in the house with his head poking out, calling out in advertisement of his posh new penthouse apartment. I never saw them together, but eventually I did see a female also show interest in the house. Unfortunately, some European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) also put a bid up on the house.

European starling in summer plumage. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Starlings, named for the star field like splotches of white they bear in the non-breeding season, were most likely first brought to North America by someone who wanted to introduce every bird mentioned by Shakespeare into the United States. As generalists, they’ve since flourished in our cities and suburbs where they often out-compete native birds due to their aggressiveness (ironically, their numbers are actually declining in their native range within the UK). In fact, despite being bigger and more powerful than the starling, there have been many reported incidences of flickers being pinned in birdhouses by starlings who then proceed to stab the woodpeckers with their dagger-like beaks. With that in mind, I watched nervously as a trio of starlings took up residence in a tree across from the flicker house.

One of the starlings would flap its wings and call loudly for a mate. Then he’d wait until the flickers were gone and fly over to the house, proceeding to nose most of the wood chips from the box. Nothing I did could deter him short of taking the house down, which I did for short periods before one of the flickers would come back, prompting me to replace the house and start the cycle all over again.

I finally decided to buy Coveside’s starling-proof flicker house. This house is slanted with a plexiglass shield covering the opening to the house. The reasoning behind this design is so the flicker can cling to the house and climb into the house under the plexiglass while the starlings would be deterred. I don’t know whether the flickers would have eventually figured out the mechanism or not. After I witnessed a short tussle between the starling and one of the flickers, I never saw them at the house again. The starling, however, cheekily managed to climb into the box, despite it being off-limits and continued to push out wood chips until I admitted defeat and took the box down for good.

I haven’t seen any flickers in the neighborhood since probably early May now. I’m guessing most of them decided to find homes elsewhere to raise their chicks, somewhere far from those bully birds. Next spring I’ll welcome them back and try again to entice them to stay awhile.