Starlings beating bad rap

Oct 17, 2002, vol. 25, no. 4
By Marianne Meadahl

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Oliver Love (left), on the Davistead farm, checks his starling boxes with David (centre) and Hugh Davis.

They are birds with a bad reputation, but an SFU researcher studying the reproductivity of starlings on a Langley dairy farm may be proving that wrong.

Biology graduate student Oliver Love, who set up 250 bird boxes on the sprawling 200-acre farm earlier this year, is using the site's abundant starling population to investigate the role of a hormone known as corticosterone in bird reproduction.

Owners of the fifth-generation farm say damage by pests to their fields has been notably reduced since the birds, numbering in the thousands, began making their springtime rounds about a decade ago.

Despite their penchant for targeting blueberry crops and displacing some native bird species, Love says starlings can also have a flip side. They attack leatherjacket larvae, which typically infest and destroy huge patches of forage. Farm owner David Davis says letting nature take its course has replaced the need for pesticides.

The farm, with its sprawling natural setting, became an ideal site for Love and biology professor Tony Williams to study the birds. They were initially stationed at a field site in Agassiz and found the Davistead farm through the local field naturalists club. “This is not only a great natural environment, but the owners are so willing and agreeable to let us carry out this research,” notes Love.

The Davis family doesn't mind the daily appearance of the PhD student and colleague Allison Clark, who are continuing their observations until the birds retreat for winter. “We're happy to participate,” Davis says. “What they learn might eventually help us.”

During the nesting season, from mid-April until late June, the researchers do daily egg counts and obtain blood samples from the birds. The samples enable Love to study hormonal variation within the species and how variation shapes the evolution of traits, such as the number and size of eggs that are laid and the health of chicks. Love is also monitoring what effect the homorne has on the mothering skills of birds.

During this year's nesting season, Love says about half of his boxes were occupied and 88 offspring were produced.

Starlings came to North America about a century ago, when 100 of the European birds were released in New York City. Their population in North and Central America today is estimated to be more than 200 million.

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