It was a warm, almost-summer day in May 2020 when I accidentally stumbled upon an intense bird meeting. After a morning of attending online classes for school, I took a break by looking out a window that faced my neighbor’s fenced backyard. Perched on black fence posts and in the surrounding trees were a handful of crows watching a larger congregation of small black birds gathered on the ground below them.
The scene was reminiscent of a playground full of children playing while under the watchful eyes of their parents. “Those must be baby crows!” was the thought that first came to mind. But something wasn’t right. I pressed my face to the window, squinting to see the smaller birds. (If my neighbors had walked into their backyard at that moment, it would have been an awkward explanation.) The birds’ beaks were bright yellow, unlike the dark beaks of the crows, and when they moved in the sunlight their feathers revealed a beautiful green and purple iridescence.
Pulling my phone out of my pocket, I Googled “black bird with yellow beak.” Up came a list of various black birds, challenging me to match my observations with screen images. The birds I saw didn’t have a patch of red and yellow on the wing like a Red-winged Blackbird, had a more slender neck than a Brewer’s Blackbird, and had a shorter tail than Common Grackle. That’s when I discovered starlings. Clicking on the image, I knew that I had the right bird. As I scrolled through associated information, I found some riveting facts about these unassuming birds.
The European Starling gets its name because it looks like a small, four-pointed star when its stubby, triangular wings are spread out in flight. Starlings tend to travel in mixed flocks of similar-looking bird species or one giant flock called a murmuration. Some murmurations can number several thousands of birds. The seemingly perfect flight coordination of such flocks make them a wonderful spectacle to witness. However, starlings can be rather aggressive in displacing other birds in feeding and nesting situations, earning them the title of a “bully bird.” The species is not native to North America. Instead, they were introduced from Europe by Eugene Schieffelin, a William Shakespeare enthusiast. His mission was to introduce birds mentioned in William Shakespeare’s works, although starlings appear only once in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. From introduction points in New York’s Central Park in 1890, starlings have spread over much of North America.
The American Crow, on the other hand, is larger, measuring around 17.5 inches in length. Unlike the starlings’ shimmers of iridescent color, crows are all black, down to their beaks and feet. These relatively large plain-looking birds are better known for their intelligence. Studies have shown that crows can identify individual people and associated threat levels, and even pass that knowledge to their offspring and flock members. For example, John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, and two students trapped, banded, and released seven crows while wearing a caveman mask, creating, for the briefly captive birds, an association of danger with the mask’s exaggerated facial features. As an experimental control, the research team also used a Dick Cheney mask for neutral non-contact encounters with the targeted birds. In the following months, volunteers wore one of the two masks while walking around campus, not bothering the crows. Those wearing the dangerous mask were scolded by the crows, while those wearing the neutral mask were not harassed. As more time passed, the number of crows that attacked the dangerous-mask-wearers increased, indicating that crows learned to recognize humans from parents and other flock members.
As for the crow and starling meeting that afternoon? An overlap in their respective diets may explain the gathering. Starlings eat insects, invertebrates, berries, fruits, and seeds, while the omnivorous diet of crows includes all those items plus small vertebrates and carrion. Perhaps the crows had been simply waiting for their turn to feast on the buffet of insects and seeds in my neighbor’s backyard. The items on the menu must have been particularly delicious that day.
Angela Wu is a Teen Volunteer in the Education Department. Museum employees, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
“American Crow: Identification.” All About Birds, Cornell University, 2019, www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Crow/id.
BBC. 24 Apr. 2014, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27055030. Accessed 21 Nov. 2020.
Bradford, Alina. “Facts About Crows.” Live Science, Future US, 2 May 2017, www.livescience.com/52716-crows-ravens.html. Accessed 20 Nov. 2020.
“European Starling: Life History.” All About Birds, Cornell University, 2019, www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/European_Starling/lifehistory. Accessed 20 Nov. 2020.
Nijhuis, Michelle. “UW Professor Learns Crows Don’t Forget a Face.” The Seattle Times, 26 Aug. 2008, www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/uw-professor-learns-crows-dont-forget-a-face/. Accessed 23 Dec. 2020.
NPR. Npr, 4 Jan. 2017, www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/01/04/506400719/video-swooping-starlings-in-murmuration. Accessed 23 Dec. 2020.
“Starlings.” Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, 2020, www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/wildlife/living-with-wildlife/avoid-resolve-conflict/starlings.html. Accessed 20 Nov. 2020.