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Saga in the Savanna

Summer in Cedar Creek's oak savannas means an incredible amount of animal activity. We could fill this blog with stories on a daily basis if we had the time! An interesting phenomenon we observed this year has been frequent interactions between European starlings and red-headed woodpeckers. These interactions have been mostly aggressive in nature and largely revolve around nest cavities. In May we observed a woodpecker tossing grass out of a cavity in an aspen tree. The cavity had two red-headed woodpecker eggs later that month and volunteers observed starlings at the nest shortly thereafter, presumably the result of an eviction of the woodpeckers. In another instance, a pair of red-headed woodpeckers and a pair of starlings set up shop in the same nest tree and seemed to ignore each other. The starling cavity was 6 feet above the woodpecker cavity, so perhaps this provided a comfortable distance for both pairs.

Photo by Siah St. Clair
Red-headed woodpecker chasing European Starling from nest cavity at Cedar Creek

Photo by Siah St. Clair
Red-headed woodpecker pair checking on their nestlings after chasing a starling from the nest cavity

Photo by Siah St. Clair
One of three red-headed woodpecker nestlings viewing the scuffle from the nest cavity

Starlings compete aggressively for nesting sites and can evict the occupants of other desired holes, including red-headed woodpeckers (and other woodpecker species) that excavate them. Individual starlings can mimic up to 20 species, including Eastern Wood Pewee, Killdeer, and Meadowlark songs.

Interestingly, all of the nearly 200 million European Starlings found in North America today are descendants of ~100 birds released in New York City's Central Park in the early 1890s by an industrialist who wanted to establish , in the U.S., populations of all of the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. It took several tries with starlings but eventually the population took off.

Ironically, starlings are only mentioned once by Shakespeare - in Henry IV Part I.

Hotspur is in rebellion against the King and is thinking of ways to torment him. In Act 1 Scene III he fantasizes about teaching a starling to say "Mortimer" - one of the king's enemies."Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion," Shakespeare wrote.

Like it or not, starlings are here to stay. We'll continue to document their interactions with Red-headed woodpeckers at Cedar Creek. The savanna sagas will likely be ongoing - our hope is we observe more comedies than tragedies!


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