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FAMILY III. STURNIDÆ.
(Starlings.) The extensive and widely distributed Family before us, comprises species, for the most part, above the average size of Passerine birds, but yet inferior to the Crows. They are in general social, associating in flocks, often immensely numerous; feeding much on the ground, and spreading destruction among the cultivated fields, or following herds of cattle for the sake of the parasitical insects which infest their bodies, or such as they disturb from the grass on which they graze. Hence their legs and feet are robust and powerful, and their gait stately, and frequently swaggering, like that of the Corvida. Their beak is nearly straight, stout at the base, diminishing regularly to a sharp point, which is not distinctly notched; the ridge ascends upon the forehead, dividing the plumage of that part. The texture of this organ is particularly hard and firm, and its form is well adapted to the penetration of the earth in search of worms and subterranean larvæ.
The plumage of the Starlings, though commonly of dark colours, has a peculiar richness; black, glossed with lustrous reflections of steelblue, purple, or green, is the prevailing hue. Occasionally, however, this is relieved by brighter tints, as broad masses of crimson or yellow, and, in a few instances, of white; as in the genera Icterus, Xanthornis, and others. The numerous species are scattered over every part of the world.
Genus Sturnus. (Linn.) The beak in the Starlings proper is almost straight, pointed, depressed from the base, rather wider than high; the ridge convex and rounded, the point almost imperceptibly notched. The nostrils are basal, and lateral, partially closed by a prominent membrane. The wings are lengthened and pointed; the first feather so short as to be rudimentary, the second the longest; the tail short, somewhat forked. The feet are of moderate size, formed for walking; the lateral toes equal in length, and united to the middle one as far as the first joint.
We have but one British representative of this genus, the common Starling, or Stare (Sturnus vulgaris, Linn.), but this is abundant in most parts of the kingdom. It is a beautiful bird, both in its form, and in the colours of its plumage, which, combining with its sprightly manners, its intelligence, docility, memory, and power of imitating various sounds, have made it a general favourite. The general hue of the plumage is almost black, glossed with brilliant purple and green reflections in the changing lights; the feathers are tipped with triangular points of yellowishwhite, which gives an agreeable character of starlike dotting to the whole; in the course of the winter, many of these points fall off, particularly on the under parts, when the plumage is more uniform in hue. The beak is brilliant vellow.
- The Starling," observes Bechstein," becomes wonderfully familiar in the house; as docile and cunning as a dog, he is always gay, wakeful, soon
knows all the inhabitants of the house, remarks their motions and air, and adapts himself to their humours. In his solemn tottering step, he appears to go stupidly forward; but nothing escapes
his eye. He learns to pronounce words without having his tongue cut, which proves the uselessness of this cruel operation. He repeats correctly the airs which are taught him, as does also the female, imitates the cries of men and animals, and the songs of all the birds in the room with
him. It must be owned that his acquirements are very uncertain ; he forgets as fast as he learns, or he mixes up the old and new in utter confusion. ... Not only are the young susceptible of these instructions, the oldest even shew the most astonishing docility." *
In our own country the Starling appears to be partially migratory ;. large numbers, that during the summer were spread over the kingdom, accumulating in winter in the most southern counties, as Devonshire and Cornwall; returning thence as soon as the frosty weather has broken up. Some, however, even in the north, content themselves with a removal to the sea side, where, even in the hardest weather, they can find subsistence in the marine worms and polypes, in obtaining which they display much ingenuity. Insinuating its sharp pointed beak under the rounded pebbles of the beach, the Starling skilfully turns them over with a sudden jerk, and immediately seizes and devours whatever may have been sheltered beneath.
At the breeding season these birds frequent old ruined buildings, church-steeples, or even inhabited houses, hollow and decayed trees in lonely woods, or rocky cliffs overhanging the sea. But at other times they resort to low, marshy grounds, covered with reeds or beds of osiers, among which they roost nightly in incredible numbers. About an hour before dark all the hosts that have been feeding in the vicinity congregate into one vast phalanx, which, before they retire to rest, perform the most complex and beautiful evolutions, wheeling and sweeping in the air, separating and uniting, forming the most regular and varied
* Cage-birds (Lond. 1838), p. 187.
figures, as if animated by a common impulse, or obeying a definite word of command. They will form themselves into a triangular body, so compact as not to permit the sky to be seen between them, then shoot into a long pear-shaped figure, expand like a sheet, wheel into a ball, as Pliny long ago observed, each individual apparently striving to get into the centre, with a promptitude more like that of an army under review than the actions of birds. At length, after many feints to alight and resumptions of the aerial manouvres, the whole army descends upon the reeds with much clamour, which is kept up for some time after they have taken their places for the night.
Of these peculiarities in the economy of this bird, Mr. Yarrell has furnished some interesting illustrations. “I am indebted,” observes this eminent zoologist, “ to the kindness of the late Dr. Goodenough, Dean of Wells, for the following account of an extraordinary haunt of Starlings on the estate of W. Miles, Esq., at King's Weston :- This locality is an evergreen plantation of arbutus, laurustinus, &c., covering some acres, to which these birds repair in an evening—I was going to say, and I believe I might with truth say-by millions, from the low grounds about the Severn, where their noise and stench are something altogether unusual. By packing in such myriads upon the evergreens, they have stripped them of their leaves, except just at the tops, and have driven the Pheasants, for whom the plantation was intended, quite away from the ground. In the daytime, when the birds are not there, the stench is still excessive. Mr. Miles was about to cut the whole plantation down to get rid of them, two