Starlings are a type of small black bird with shiny feathers that are very common across North America and Europe. Their distinctive appearance makes them easily recognizable, but there are several other birds that resemble starlings in color, size, shape, or behavior.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The birds most often confused with starlings include grackles, blackbirds, cowbirds, and mynas due to similarities in their dark, glossy plumage.

European Starling

Appearance

The European starling is a small to medium-sized songbird, measuring around 20-23 cm (8-9 inches) in length with a wingspan of 34-38 cm (13-15 inches). Its plumage is iridescent black with a green and purple sheen. In winter, small light speckles emerge on its feathers.

Its bill is narrow and pointed, and is yellow during the breeding season but black at other times of the year. Juveniles have pale brown plumage with darker speckles until their first molt.

Behavior

European starlings are highly social and gather in large, noisy flocks called murmurations throughout the year. They roost together at night and forage together by day. Their flight patterns when flocking can form beautiful, swirling shapes across the sky.

They are vocal birds with a variety of whistles, clicks, and warbles. They can also mimic other bird calls and even human speech. Though sometimes considered a nuisance, their social behavior is a wonder of nature.

Habitat and Range

Native to Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, the European starling has been introduced to North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It thrives in a variety of open and partially open habitats including farmland, grassland, urban parks, and suburban areas.

Though an invasive species in many parts of the world due to its aggressive displacement of native cavity-nesters, it continues to expand its range across the globe.

Common Grackle

Differences from Starlings

The Common Grackle looks similar to the European Starling at first glance, but has some key differences. The grackle is larger, with a length of 11-13 inches compared to the starling’s 8-9 inches. The grackle’s tail is also longer than the starling’s and is keel-shaped rather than rounded.

The grackle’s bill is longer and stouter than the starling’s slender bill.

While male starlings are glossy black year-round, male grackles have iridescent bronze and greenish-black feathers during the breeding season. Females of both species are brown, but the grackle has distinctive light streaks on its breast.

Grackles produce a wide variety of vocalizations including chuckles, chirps, and rattling calls. Starlings make a range of melodic whistles and warbling sounds. So their vocalizations differ quite a bit.

Appearance

As mentioned, male Common Grackles have distinctive bronze iridescence on their heads and throats during breeding season. Their feathers are mostly blackish-brown, with light brown streaking on the breast. Females have light brown breasts with darker streaks.

Both sexes have pale yellow eyes and long, stout grayish-black bills. Their long keel-shaped tails and pointed wings in flight are identifying features.

Juveniles are brown overall, with some iridescence just starting to show on the males. They can be differentiated from other blackbirds by their larger size, longer tails, and pointed wings.

Behavior and Habitat

Common Grackles are extremely social and travel in large, noisy flocks. They nest in colonies, often near water. Though sometimes considered a nuisance, their food consists mainly of insects, grains, berries and small creatures.

Grackles are adaptable and found in a variety of habitats including woodlands, marshes, city parks and suburban areas. Though resident year-round through much of their range, northern populations migrate south for the winter.

Some interesting behaviors of grackles include their complex vocalizations, communal bathing and roosting displays where they arrange themselves geometrically across a roost tree.

Red-winged Blackbird

Appearance

The red-winged blackbird is a medium-sized songbird, measuring around 6 to 9 inches in length with a wingspan of 12 to 15 inches. The male is all black with bright red and yellow shoulder patches (called “epaulets”) edged with white that are visible when the bird flies or displays.

Females are mostly dark brown and streaky. Both sexes have a slender, pointed bill and long tail.

Males are very territorial and use their red wing patches to defend their breeding and roosting territories. They often display these patches when defending a territory. The contrasting colored patches are used to attract females and to communicate and defend territories from other males.

Truly an eye-catching bird!

Behavior

Red-winged blackbirds are highly social birds that form large flocks outside of breeding season, sometimes mixed in with other blackbird species or European starlings. Huge flocks will roost together at night in wetland areas.

Males arrive at the breeding sites before females and establish territories that they defend vigorously with various threat displays and calls. Their familiar “konk-a-ree” song is adeclaration of territory. These birds are polygynous, meaning males will mate with multiple females in their territory.

The females build nests of grasses and sedges woven together and attached to marsh vegetation, often over water. Nests are relined with mud each time before eggs are laid.

Habitat

Red-winged blackbirds inhabit open, wet areas across much of North and Central America. Typical breeding habitats include wetlands, ponds, lakes, marshes, and damp meadows. They prefer areas with tall vegetation near open water for nesting and roosting.

In winter, these birds migrate in huge mixed flocks to agricultural areas, grasslands, pastures, open fields, and backyards. They are very attracted to food sources like grain fields and bird feeders. Their ability to adapt to human-altered environments has allowed red-winged blackbird populations to remain robust while other wetland bird numbers have declined.

Brown-headed Cowbird

Appearance

The brown-headed cowbird is a small-medium sized songbird, measuring around 7-8 inches (18-20 cm) in length with a wingspan of 12-13 inches (30-33 cm). The adult male has a grayish-brown body with a dark brown head, throat, and breast. Their belly is paler brown or gray.

Females are slightly smaller and their plumage is grayish-brown overall, often with a pale throat. Both sexes have conical bills that are slightly curved downward. Their eyes are reddish-brown. Juveniles resemble adult females but are paler overall.

In flight, brown-headed cowbirds have pointed wings and a short, rounded tail. Their wingbeats are stiff and rapid. While perched, they often cock their tails upward. Their posture is usually slouched forward.

Compared to other icterids like red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds have a more slender, gracile build.

Behavior

Brown-headed cowbirds are gregarious birds that travel in large flocks of up to hundreds or thousands of individuals. They associate with other blackbird species as well as grackles, starlings, and bobolinks.

Cowbirds forage mostly on the ground, walking with a distinctive strut and pecking at the ground for seeds and insects. They sometimes ride on the backs of cattle to pick off insects stirred up by the livestock’s movement.

Males perform courtship displays for females that involve puffing up their feathers, spreading their wings and tail, and bowing while making gurgling sounds. After mating, the females leave and lay their eggs parasitically in the nests of other songbirds, abandoning their young to be raised by foster parents.

Brown-headed cowbirds have loud, musical songs made up of short phrases that are often repeated. Their calls include squawks, whistles, and chatterings. They are highly vocal while in flight.

Breeding Habits

Brown-headed cowbirds are brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species and leave the parenting duties to the hosts. Each female cowbird may deposit 15-40 eggs per breeding season across multiple host nests.

Some common hosts include warblers, vireos, tanagers, thrushes, flycatchers, finches, and sparrows. The cowbird eggs hatch earlier than the host’s, giving the cowbird nestling a head start in growth. The hosts end up raising young cowbirds often at the expense of their own chicks.

Cowbirds time their egg-laying to match the stage of the host’s clutch. Some hosts like cardinals recognize and reject cowbird eggs, but most hosts accept them. Cowbird eggs resemble many common hosts in coloration and size.

Females may remove 1-2 host eggs when laying their own to ensure space and resources for her chick.

Host species that feed their young insects are better suited to raise the cowbird chicks than seed-eating hosts. Cowbird fledglings often outcompete and starve host young. Parasitism by cowbirds has contributed to declines in populations of some threatened songbirds like the Kirtland’s warbler.

Hill Myna

Native Range and Habitat

The Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa) is indigenous to tropical southern Asia, primarily found in northeastern India, central and eastern Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Burma. This chatty bird prefers hill forests and cultivation areas near human habitation at altitudes up to 6,000 feet.

Hill Mynas nest in holes in trees, temples, buildings or river banks, adapting well to deforestation and urbanization as long as suitable nesting sites exist.

Physical Features

A little smaller than the common myna, the 25 cm long Hill Myna sports a jet black plumage accented by bright orange-yellow patches of naked skin behind the eyes and along the lower mandible. The stout black bill sports a yellow tip.

Juveniles have a duller bare part coloration until their first molt. Sexes appear identical. Hill Mynas bathe frequently, constantly tending their feathers.

While Hill Mynas might superficially resemble European starlings in their black plumage accented by light spots, starlings lack the Hill Myna’s colorful bare part patches. Additionally, the Hill Myna’s size, proportions and behavior differ substantially from the stocky, aggressive starling.

Vocalizations

One of the most talented mimics among birds, Hill Mynas imitate calls of other birds, animals and even human speech. Their most common vocalizations consist of loud, clear whistles, but their repertoire commonly includes diverse horns, flutes, croaks, choking sounds, clicks and the ability to accurately imitate words and phrases in one or more human languages.

Hill Mynas often engage in vocal duets. Their talent and proclivity for mimicry makes them popular cage birds.

In contrast, European starlings produce a wide variety of songs, calls, clicks and wheezes, but lack the Hill Myna’s superior ability to accurately imitate specific sounds from their environment. Starlings generally produce their vocalizations singly rather than in conversational duets.

Conclusion

While several bird species like grackles, blackbirds, cowbirds, and mynas may resemble European starlings in color or shape, they can be distinguished by differences in size, feathers, behavior, habitat, vocalizations, and other characteristics on closer inspection.

So next time you see a dark glossy bird, consider the specific field marks to determine if it’s a starling or one of its bird cousins.

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