Starlene, the Starling

My daughter-in-law extracted Starlene, a baby starling, from an exhaust vent in her house. The nest was blocking air flow, and Starlene's siblings had already vacated the nest.  Research on baby starlings indicates Starlene was probably less than six weeks old when I adopted her.  The chronology of Starlene begins below on 12 May 2005.

May June
 July       Aug   Sept
Buttons with red dates point to links or photos of Starly

12 May 05:

Starlene, AKA Star (or Starly), spent her first night at our house (screened porch), in a small bird cage that my daughter-in-law loaned me for transporting the bird from her house.

13 May 05:

Starlene started squawking immediately this morning when I went on the porch to feed her. I started off feeding her puppy food soaked in water.

Starlene spent most of the afternoon in our fig tree watching the other birds in the yard. She would squawk at me to feed her when she was hungry and saw me from the fig tree. (She has complete freedom to do what she wants in our backyard during daylight hours.)

Starlene is on our screened porch now in an old cylindrical hardware cloth cage I made for a baby dove (Missy) last year. She roosts there at night. (The loaner cage is on the patio table [door open], outside the screened porch.)

14 May 05:

Starlene has a new MO. When she's ready to eat, she flies from the fig tree to the patio table and waits for me. As soon as I come out of the house, she starts squawking to be fed. (She is not a patient bird.)

She flew from the patio table to me while I was making her some gruel on the other side of the screened porch - about 15 feet. She landed at the same height as the table top, so she can now fly horizontally.

She's back in the fig tree now waiting for her next feeding (top photo). I figure she will probably establish her independence in a few days.

15 May 05:

Starlene flew from the patio table to the bough of the ash tree (seven feet above the ground), to the English Ivy at the top corner of our yard, and to the lip of the porch gutter (needed a chair to stand on to retrieve her on my finger).

She drank water from the bowl on the patio table all by herself (scooped it up in her beak and downed it, unlike a dove). She pecked at some seed on the table, but she hasn't gotten the hang of feeding herself yet.

Later, I went outside to feed Starlene again, and she did not squawk from the fig tree where I had left her earlier this morning. I searched for her in her usual hiding places in the yard but couldn't find her. Then I heard her on the other side of the yard.

She was in our ash tree, about 20 feet above the ground. When I saw her, she flew down to the patio table. I fed her some dog food and seed gruel, and she flew back to the ash tree.

This is a scrappy bird, and I think she's going to make it on her own sooner than I had originally estimated.

This afternoon, I mowed the grass. Starlene does not like power mowers. She abandoned her perch in the ash tree to get away. When I finished mowing, I couldn't find her anywhere.

Later, I returned to feed the other birds, and I heard her squawking. She was in the neighbor's oak tree. I went to get her food, and she flew from the oak tree, over our backyard, to our other neighbor's chinaberry tree. From there, she flew to the patio table where I was preparing her gruel.

After her feeding, she went back to the ash tree where a squirrel came eyeball-to-eyeball with her (she didn't fly away). She instinctively knows squirrels are not to be feared, or she needs to learn to be wary of animals bigger than her.

I was concerned that she might not come to me before it started raining (so I could put her on the porch). It took some coaxing (and thunder), but I got Starlene to come down from the ash tree. She got fed again, and she bedded down on the porch for a rainy night.

16 May 05:

Starlene flew from the patio table to the neighbor's chinaberry tree after being fed her gruel this morning.

Later in the morning, I thought Starlene had flown away for good. I spent ten minutes in the backyard looking and listening for her. Finally, I heard a faint squawk off in the distance. It was coming from the neighbor's pecan tree behind our house, beyond the easement.

Suddenly a bird zommed down from the pecan tree and buzzed me on its way to our ash tree. It was Starlene. From there she flew to the neighbor's oak tree, to the other neighbor's chinaberry tree, and back to the oak tree. Finally she flew to the fence where I retrieved her and took her to the patio table for feeding.

Interestingly, she quits squawking when she's had enough to eat, and she won't open her beak for more food. When this happens, she starts looking around for a place to fly to.

Starlene is flying quite well now. Her flights are deliberate and her landings are targeted. I believe she's just about ready for weaning. Hopefully, she will establish independence from her "daddy" soon and start foraging for her own food.

Starlene was waiting for me on the patio table when I came out of the house at sunset to feed her. When done eating, she flew to our ash tree (where she will spend her first night off the porch). I left food for her in her open cage on the patio table since she will undoubtly be up and around (and hungry) before I get out of bed tomorrow morning.

17 May 05:

Starlene was alive and well this morning, but I couldn't coax her to fly down from her perch to eat. A subsequent attempt yielded a hungry starling at the patio table. She got a special gruel treat of crushed dogfood, birdseed, bread, raw peanut, and banana. Yum, yum!

Later, I stepped out of the house, and she was on the patio table (squawking). I went to get her food, and she flew to the ash tree. While I was preparing her gruel at the patio table, she flew to my shoulder and squawked some more. I fed her on the table because my shirt was too vulnerable to poop (which she does a lot).

When done, she flew to parts unknown down the length of the easement. I will be surprised if she comes back for her next feeding.

Surprise, surprise! My wife and I looked out the window and saw a starling taking a splashy bath in the water bowl on the patio table. I went outside, and a very wet Starlene identified herself with lots of squawking. I fed her and she flew to a hiding place near our compost pile to dry off. (She was too wet to clear the fence.)

Starlene came back a couple of hours later to bathe again (and eat, of course).

Starlene is spending the night in a tree after her evening feeding. I tried to get her to eat small chunks of food from my fingers, but I ended up having to put the food in her beak (which she gulped down).

18 May 05:

Starlene was in the ash tree squawking for breakfast when I went out to feed her. She would fly from tree to tree, but she wouldn't come to me or the patio table. Finally, she landed on the lip of the porch gutter, but she wouldn't get on my finger. I had to feed her there by reaching up to her with the food, and she downed less food than usual before she flew away. Hopefully, this is a sign that she's ready to go it on her own.

No such luck. Within a few hours she flew back to the lip of the porch gutter, hungry and squawking. She got on my finger, and I fed her at the patio table. She did not down her usual portion of food before she flew away. (Maybe she's foraging for food in-between meals. Hope, hope!)

Later, she flew from our crepe myrtle tree to my hand and ate a normal serving of food. (I might have to wean her cold-turkey if this continues.)

Another milestone: During her next feeding (delayed), Starlene took bread from my fingers and swallowed it (I didn't have to put it in her beak). She was not happy about this departure from the routine (balked and squawked extra loud).

Her last "free" meal of the day left her unfilled because she wouldn't eat all the food I offered her. (I wouldn't put it in her beak. She had to take it.)  Interestingly, she has a stronger bite than the doves I've hand-fed, and she has two lengthwise rows of teeth-like projections toward the back of her upper beak.

19 May 05:

This morning I decided that Starlene doesn't need me to survive. I put two June bugs in front of her, and she scarfed down both, one after the other, before they could crawl away. She "chewed" them before swallowing. She downed some bananna and puppy food from my fingers before flying to the neighbor's tree. I have no doubt that this bird can make it on its own now.

Starlene is becoming a pest. My wife went to the garden this afternoon to check our tomato plants. Starlene surprised her by flying to her shoulder. My wife does not like surprises and reacted accordingly. Starlene didn't care and kept squawking until I retrieved her from my wife's shoulder and fed her a morsel of dog food.

20 May 05:

I won't feed Starlene everytime she hounds me today. My plan is to feed her twice a day (mid-morning and late afternoon) when I replenish the feeder and bath for the other birds that frequent our backyard. She will have to forage for herself the rest of the time. Since she only comes to me for handouts, I suspect she will eventually limit future visits to coincide with the scheduled feedings.

This is the last planned entry I'll be making in the chronology on Starlene. She is certainly capable of taking care of herself now, and her routine is becoming too repetitive to continue writing about it on a daily basis. If she does anything different and noteworthy, I will update this log at that time.

So, until then, here's Starlene the first morning of the new feeding schedule. Unlike Missy, a curious and playful dove I raised last year, Starlene visits only for the "free" meals. Even so, she is an interesting bird to watch. I hope the "human imprint" does not work to her detriment in-between visits.

23 May 05:

My wife and I were out of town for two days during which time Starlene was completely on her own.

The morning after our return produced a spry (and loud) Starlene that was quite excited to see me. Surprisingly, she didn't seem to be hungry (didn't eat her usual allotment of food). Later, however, she gulped down water-soaked puppy food niblets to make up for lost time.

She caused a frantic call for help from my wife when she tried unrelentingly to land on her shoulder and head in the garden. Once again, I had to save my wife from the pesky starling. (She left my wife a "present" on her shirt.)

This photo (morning after our return) shows the teeth-like projections in Starlene's upper beak that I mentioned in the 18 May entry above.

25 May 05:

Starlene was foraging for food on the ground with the doves this morning. She flew to my hand and ate only two bites of food before flying to the power line behind our house to be with the doves. The doves tolerate her presence. Perhaps she thnks she's a dove now.

6 June 05:

For more than a week, Starlene has been very wary of other animals that could harm her. She now avoids my wife and our dog and will come to me only when I'm on the patio and have food. She won't stay on my finger if I leave the patio (flies away).

Yesterday I learned that Starlene's teeth-like projections in her upper beak are called choanal papillae. I also noticed that Starlene has translucent protective covers that slide up from the bottom of her eyes when she takes food from my fingers.

Today, when I went onto the patio to feed Starlene, two starlings flew to me. One landed on my hand (Starlene), and the other circled my head and flew to a nearby tree limb to watch us. I think Starlene has found a friend of her own species.

11 June 05:

Starlene took a large June bug from my hand and "shared" it with a second starling on the ground about 15 feet from my feet. (I had shown Starlene an image of herself in a mirror earlier in June, so maybe that reinforced a nestling "imprint" of her starling parents and siblings prior to 12 May.)

12 June 05:

Starlene has been with us for a month now. She and her starling friend were on the patio pecking around this morning. Starlene's adult glossy iridescent feathers are starting to emerge. She uses her beak to pry open my fingers to get to June bugs I'm holding in my hand. She does not like tomatoes (thank goodness!).

17 June 05:

Starlene and her starling friend were on the patio again this morning. The color around Starlene's eye pupils indicates she is, indeed, a female (I wasn't sure before). She now prefers taking food from the palm of my hand or eating on the patio table. She bites my fingers when I stroke her back. I don't think she likes that.

18 June 05:

Starlene was with her friend again this morning. Starlene was on the fence about 30 feet from me when I noticed she had something in her beak. I motioned to her, and she flew to my finger and showed me a clover leaf. She usually doesn't come to me unless I have food. (Earlier she took a snapping beetle from my hand, so maybe she thought I had another bug.)

22 June 05:

Starlene was pecking around in the grass with her friend late this evening. Yesterday she systematically dismantled a large roach and downed it. This morning I offered her a June bug and a smaller black beetle. She ate the June bug but had no interest in the other beetle. Her adult feathers are becoming more noticeable. She has also renewed an attraction to my wife and likes to visit us in our garden when we're tending to our plants. She's definitely a pest.

25-28 June 05:

Starlene watched from the edge of the patio cover today as I cleaned my barbeque grill. She chattered softly (murmur-like), unlike her usual squawking. She lets me wipe her beak with my finger when it needs it. (She used to resist by biting me.) Her feathers are starting to get the mottled look. I'll be photographing her again when her adult feathers are more evenly distributed.

I tried to photograph Starlene's feathers on her back and wings, but she wouldn't cooperate (didn't like the camera). You can, however, see a few adult mottled feathers emerging in this frontal view of her (28 June photo).

14-15 July 05:

Starlene has been with us for more than two months now. She has become an attractive juvenile bird with her sleek, well-developed back and wing feathers. Her breast is becoming more mottled, and it won't be long before she has the full frontal speckled appearance. (Time for another photograph.)

This evening she spent a long time with me on the patio just visiting. She nibbled on my ear and "talked" a lot (soft gurgling and whistling sounds). She's an interesting bird, and I enjoy the time we spend together. So far, she hasn't missed any regular feedings when my wife and I are home.

Starlene was visiting again on the patio this afternoon (15 July), and it started to rain. She immediately flew to shelter under our patio cover (top stringer of our screened porch). She did not like the thunder, but she stayed put for the duration (1.25" of rain in less than an hour). She's certainly pretty resourceful for a bird.

18 July 05:

Apparently Starlene is beginning to venture farther away from our house. Normally she is punctual for her daily feedings. Yesterday, however, I just about gave up waiting for her to show up for her late afternoon feeding. She finally came, and I attributed her tardiness to a light rain in progress. This morning she didn't show up at all, so I left her food niblets on the patio table. She appeared about a half-hour later and ate the food on the table. (She was on time today for her late afternoon feeding.)

22 July 05:

I read online that starlings can be taught to mimic human speech and whistles. So yesterday I started trying to teach Starlene the wolf whistle and "pretty bird."  Today, while repeating the wolf whistle to her, she squatted on my finger in the roosting position, puffed her feathers, and looked like she was going to sleep. After about five minutes of wolf whistles, she returned to her "standing" position and flew away. (Time will tell how successful this experiment will be.)

28 July 05:

We were out of town for three days and returned late last night. I went outside this morning to feed Starlene, but she didn't show, so I left her food niblets on the patio table and fed the other birds that frequent our back yard. When I returned to the patio, Starlene was on the table eating her niblets.

She flew to my shoulder and visited for a few seconds and then returned to the table to finish eating. Something spooked the doves that were feeding nearby, and they flew away in a hurry. Starlene took off, too. (A chicken hawk periodically checks my backyard for easy prey. So far, it hasn't had a successful strike because my birds are quite wary, and there's a lot of tree cover.)

5 Aug 05:

Starlene was very "talkative" this morning. We had been working on the wolf whistle and "pretty bird" since 22 July. Today, among her gurgling sounds and soft chatter, she produced half a wolf whistle. I'm hoping she'll get the rest of it soon. (I haven't discerned any part of "pretty bird" yet.)

I also use the wolf whistle to attract Starlene when I go outside. Usually, if she's in earshot, she will fly to me and visit. (She almost always comes at feeding time when I whistle.)

8 Aug 05:

I watched Starlene systematically remove pieces of broken mortar from a crack in our 21-year-old makeshift basketball court again. She flies away before I get my camera. Each time I replace the pieces, she pulls them back out again (to look for bugs or live up to her reputation of being a pest).

These are the different types of bugs she has eaten that I'm aware of (not from the cracks): June bugs, snapping beetles, roaches, grasshoppers, and locusts. (She doesn't like black beetles.) Judging from her droppings, she has been quite active (and successful) in her hunting for bugs between handouts.

Here's a photograph of Starlene three months after extraction from her nest in a house exhaust vent.

11 Aug 05:

Starlene was late for her morning feeding. While eating, she was puffy and seemed uncomfortable. She pooped about five times in five minutes. It was runny and dark brown. It looked like she had been eating some kind of berries.

She returned later to visit. Her "diarrhea" apparently had gone away since everything seemed back to normal. She "talked" a lot until another starling landed on the fence. She joined the other bird on the fence, and then they both flew away in the same direction. (I don't think Starlene is old enough to mate yet, but she definitely recognizes her own species.)

15 Aug 05:

Each day, morning and late afternoon, after feeding Starly, I feed the other birds that frequent my back yard. The routine includes rubbing old bread into the rough bark on top of the tree bough from which the birdfeeder hangs. (I need to stand on a lawn chair to do that.)

Starly decided to check this out this afternoon. She flew from the basketball court to my shoulder and then to the tree bough. She was eating (and scattering) the bread with her probing beak when a female squirrel I've been feeding for several years descended from the tree onto the bough. Starly wasted no time relinquishing the bough to the squirrel. (I gave the squirrel some sunflower seed.)

22 Aug 05:

A cat was in the garden this morning stalking the birds. Starly, however, came for her breakfast treat after my wife shooed the cat away. I changed brands of puppy food a few days ago, and Starly fussed a lot. She adapted, however, and now eats the differently shaped (soaked) niblets if I pinch them in half. (Do I have a spoiled bird, or what!)

Starlene still hasn't done the wolf whistle or mimicked "pretty bird." Maybe only captive (caged) starlings can be taught to mimic human sounds. Yesterday she watched me repair a garden hose and made gurgling semi-whistling sounds the entire time.

Starlene's adult feathers almost fully cover her breast now (photograph). I tried to photograph her iridescent back feathers in direct sunlight, but Starly would not cooperate.

30 Aug 05:

Starlene's adult head feathers are starting to show, and loss of the "old" feathers is giving her head the molted look. It's not attractive, but it's only temporary. I'll be taking another photograph next month after the new feathers are more prominent.

I wondered what Starly was doing when she pecked at sunflower seed I threw on the basketball court for the doves. I suspected she was consuming the few seeds that didn't have hulls. I sorted through some sunflower seeds in my storage container and got about ten hull-less seeds and offered them to Starly. She scarfed them down without hesitation. (I'll be buying some hull-less sunflower seed for Starly the next time we go shopping.)

My next project is to make a box with a hole big enough for Starly and secure it under the patio cover overhang, on the top stringer of the screened porch. This place is one of her favorite perches during the day, and maybe she will use the box as a cozy roosting place during the coming cold winter nights and/or for nesting next spring. Missy, a previous hand-fed dove, left last October when the first cold front arrived in south Texas; however, I think Starly will stay close this winter.

11 Sep 05:

Photograph of Starly (under the patio cover overhang, on the top stringer of the screened porch). It's been four months since I adopted her.

14-15 Sep 05:

I changed the type of dog food for Starly to small adult niblets (I still soak them in water to soften). I thought Starly would make a fuss about the change (like last time), but she gobbled them down without hesitation. Afterwards, she spent a long time "chatting" on my finger. While she was making her gurgling and whistling sounds, I examined her plumage to see if all her adult feathers had come in.

After just a few days since her last photo, it appears Starly has all her adult feathers now. She no longer looks like a juvenile, and her feathers have the speckled look all over her body except for her wing feathers which are long and shiny. Even her head has the complete adult look. Her feathers are iridescent (photograph).

Starly does not always come when I go outside and whistle for her at meal time. But, when she does come, and I'm not outside, she sits on the patio cover decorative steel post scrolling and whistles for me to come feed her. Either my wife or I hear her, and she gets fed. Pretty smart bird.

It's too late in the season for Starly to be thinking about nesting, but she has been showing a lot of interest in elevated objects with holes. I need to build and install something for her, to see what she does with it (my 30 August entry above).

19-20 Sep 05:

I was out of town since Friday. This morning, after two days of not being hand-fed, Starly showed up for a handout.

I was amazed by her sleek, really attractive appearance. Her plumage was even more adult-looking than before, with more pronounced white tips on her feathers, especially on her neck and head.

I tried to take another photograph, but she wouldn't cooperate.

The photo on the right was taken the next day, after she got back into the swing of the old routine. You can clearly see now her distinguishing adult features. She was not so attractive just a few days ago.

I need to start thinking about Starlene's safety if Hurricane Rita comes in south of us on the Gulf coast. (Wind gusts could get up to 100 MPH in our local area if that happens.)

24-27 Sep 05:

The hurricane came in east of us, and there was no rain and very little wind in our area today. I made a temporary bird box for Starly and secured it under the corner of the patio cover. If she shows any interest - and she's into holes lately - I'll make her a more durable box for this winter and next spring.

It's three days later, and Starly is still avoiding the bird box. She comes to me less often now, and that's just for handouts. She doesn't linger when she's through eating, and she hasn't perched on the upper stringer of the screened porch.

I don't know if the bird box is the problem, or if she's all grown up now and visiting with me is no longer a priority. I will remove the bird box in a few days if she continues to behave this way.

29 Sep 05:

Starly did not show today, nor did I see any of the other starlings that frequent my bird bath. A cold front came in last night, and the high temperature today was 20-degrees cooler than than the last few days (has been in the 100s). Perhaps Starly and her friends have moved on, and my 30 August speculation (about staying) was erroneous.

30 Sep 05:

This may well be the last entry that I make on the life and times of Starlene. She did not show again today (didn't come when I whistled for her), and I can only assume she has moved on. I will miss her if she has. Here's another photo of her (taken ten days ago).

1 Oct 05:

Five starlings were on the power line in the easement this morning. When I approached them, three flew away and two remained. I got some niblets and tried to coax could-be-Starly down to me. No takers. I got my camera and returned. One of the starlings flew away. I could not tell from the images if the remaining bird was Starly (probably not). I noticed that other birds, not regulars, e.g., lesser goldfinch and red-winged blackbirds, have visited my feeder and birdbath the last couple of days. Perhaps these starlings and the other birds are just passing through as they head south for the winter.

2 Oct 05:

My wife called me from the patio this morning. Surprise, surprise! Starly had come back for a handout. I fed her, and she flew away (to the power line in the easement). I'm not sure what to make of her precedence-setting absence the last three days. My wife says she's just expanding her territory to more distant locations. In any case, it looks like I will continue to soak dog food niblets for when she does decide to return (whenever). I will also remove the bird box today.

3 Oct 05:

I removed the bird box yesterday from under the corner of the patio cover, and Starly came twice today. The second time she lingered after eating and visited awhile. She even spent some time on the upper stringer of the screened porch (used to be her favorite hangout when visiting).

Starly doesn't come when I whistle for her anymore. If I don't see or hear her from inside the house, she doesn't get a handout. She has, however, managed to get our attention the last couple of days by making her presence known outside our bay window.

7 Oct 05:

Another cold front came into south Texas yesterday, and Starly didn't show today, yesterday, or the day before (three consecutive days). Maybe she will return like last time (when it warms up again).

1 Nov 05 - 27 Jan 07:

Haven't knowingly seen Starly since 4 Oct 05; however, there's one suspect starling that periodically visits our backyard that has demonstrated some Starly-like traits. Oftentimes a pair of starlings perch on the overhead power lines behind our house in the morning while I feed the other birds. One of them does half a wolf whistle.

Paul Proft
© 2005

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