Bird counters note increase in starlings

European bird is a sometimes aggressive species that's visiting Alaska more and more

Posted: Wednesday, December 28, 2005

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - An unwelcome visitor showed up in growing numbers during the 2005 Anchorage Christmas Bird Count.

Birders noted a sharp increase in European starlings, a sometimes aggressive species that's relatively new to Alaska.

Only three starlings were spotted during the 1995 Christmas bird count, according to the National Audubon Society, which sponsors the annual survey.

Last year, there were 35. Observers Dec. 17 count found 156 European starlings, almost four times the old record.

That's not welcome news, said Alaska Audubon director Stan Senner. Starlings were artificially introduced to North America. They compete fiercely with local birds.

"They're pretty much a pest species," Senner said. "They nest in holes in trees and buildings, and they displace native birds, particularly woodpeckers, like flickers, out of their natural cavities."

According to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, the 200 million or so European starlings in North America are descendants of about 100 starlings introduced into New York City's Central Park in the early 1890s by a society dedicated to bringing to America all the birds ever mentioned in the works of Shakespeare.

It took a century for the first starlings to reach Anchorage. Local birders are bracing for a boom.

"We're still talking about only a few hundred starlings in town. We're not talking about thousands and thousands," Senner said. "But once they get a foothold, they do tend to expand."

Also increasing in this year's Christmas count were several species of waterfowl, including a record 33 northern pintails, 13 Barrow's goldeneye and 2,308 mallards, about a thousand more than last year but short of the mallard record of 3,351.

That might be partly attributable to climate change and warmer winter temperatures, Senner said. The number of mallards over-wintering in Alaska has been growing statewide.

Warmer winters might also explain the growing incidence of normally migrating songbirds. Birders counted 24 robins, up from the average of 13, and 194 red-breasted nuthatches, up from the average of 95.

"You go back here 30 years in the Christmas count, and you couldn't buy a red-breasted nuthatch," Senner said. "Now they're even recording them in Fairbanks."

Anchorage observers failed to spot a single ptarmigan. The average is 25. They saw no rusty blackbirds, a species recently added to Audubon's list of Alaska birds at risk.

Overall, the number of total bird species observed, 43, was above the average of 33 but short of the record 52.

Assisting in the Christmas bird count were 118 volunteer observers, about 14 fewer than last year. They canvassed the 176-square-mile expanse of the official Anchorage counting zone, a circle 15 miles in diameter.

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