Fluffy bandits a.k.a. trash pandas a.k.a Pyroton lotor a.k.a raccoons are infamous for raiding garbage cans, even those with weighted lids. They are reputed to eat almost anything.

They look like cute, cuddly bandits, but they can be quite fearsome when approached. (More about that later.)

What Do Raccoons Eat

They also ate every single seed and the entire suet cake out of the bird feeders in my backyard.

Raccoons are truly omnivorous, and in the wild they eat about 40% invertebrates, 33% plants, and 27% vertebrates.

More specifically, when it comes to meat, raccoons eat more invertebrates than vertebrates. Some of the raccoon’s favorites are frogs, fish, crayfish, insects, rodents and bird eggs. Their voracious appetites allows raccoons to help control the populations of some pests, like yellow jackets and mice. When food is scarce (or they’re feeling lazy), raccoons will scavenge human trash or eat roadkill.

For plants, they like cherries, apples, acorns, persimmons, berries, peaches, citrus fruits, plums, wild grapes, figs, watermelons, beech nuts, corn, and walnuts. And they raid bird feeders whether food is scarce or not!

In more urban environments, raccoons will eat pretty much anything.

In fact, urban raccoons suffer some of the same consequences as humans when they share the unhealthy parts of human diets. Their access to drive-thru dumpsters and grocery store bins provide raccoons with plenty of fried, sweetened, and highly processed foods. A research team in Canada has found that raccoons in urban areas have higher blood glucose levels and higher weight than those living in wildlife preserves.

Raccoons in Cultural History

Long before Europeans came to North America, raccoons played a vital role in the lives of Indigenous people who already lived here. Our names for these animals today reflects this history. The English name “raccoon” comes from the Powhatan word aroughcun, meaning “hand-scratcher.” Further south, the Nahuatl/Aztec word mapachtli led to the modern Spanish word “mapache” or “one that takes everything in its hands.”

Several tribes, including Muskogee Cree (Wahlakalgi or Wotkalgi), the Shawnee (Sha-pä-ta’), Chippewa (Esiban), the Monominee (Aehsepan), and the Chickasaw (Shawi’ Iksa’) have Raccoon clans.

In many mythologies, Raccoon played the part of a trickster spirit, spreading mischief or using cleverness to escape danger. The Abenaki told stories of how the raccoon Azeban tricked other animals into giving him food or lost a shouting match with a waterfall. A Menominee story of a raccoon tricking blind men served as a morality tale for children. A Seneca legend of raccoons disguised as humans illustrated their intelligence escaping from an evil magician.

Raccoons in the Cooking Pot

from the 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer

In addition to starring in many American stories, raccoons have also starred in the American diet! Until the middle of the 20th century, people commonly trapped and ate raccoon along with many other small game animals that adapted to survive near humans.

Raccoons require very clever traps to outwit their nimble paws. According to historian Michael Twitty, enslaved people from West Africa adapted traps they had used for grasscutters, a West African bush rodent, to catch raccoons. Those traps were nearly identical to the traps Native Americans had been using to catch raccoons for centuries. The cooking methods both groups used for raccoon meat also greatly resembled West African culinary traditions.

In addition to providing people with a ready source of protein, hunting and trapping raccoons also helped to control the population of animals that would otherwise eat crops. Selling pelts also brought in some extra income. In some places, particularly in the North where raccoon fur is thicker, raccoon meat for the table was more of a byproduct of the practice of selling pelts. Mark Twain listed raccoon as one of the foods he missed most while traveling in Europe in the 1870s.

At one point, discerning consumers could find raccoon meat on the menu from cookbooks in Colorado to fancy restaurants in Maine. The spread of factory farming in the 20th century made beef, chicken, and pork more affordable and more popular in the American diet. There are some places where you can still find raccoon in the kitchen. I hear the best meat is in the hind-quarters.

Habitat (Natural and Otherwise)

Raccoons are very adaptable, living in a wide range of climates and habitats. They live quite happily in forests, marshes, prairies, and cities. Historically, raccoons ranged from Central America all the way up to what is now southern Canada. They typically make their dens in trees or caves, though they will also make homes in barns, abandoned vehicles, and other human-made locations.

A waschbaer in Albertshausen Germany

Raccoons have made themselves right at home in Germany, much to the dismay of German homeowners and wildlife control. Back in the early 20th century, a few people in German started raising raccoons for their fur. Bombs struck one of these farms during World War II, releasing dozens of raccoons into the surrounding countryside. In 1934, forestry officials released several pairs of raccoons into the wild in an attempt to increase wildlife diversity. Today, there are as many as a million of these waschbären (“washing bears”) in Germany, devastating local bird and turtle populations, destroying vineyards, and causing traffic accidents. German raccoons seem to be especially attracted to stealing beer, wine, and hard cider, getting noticeably drunk at festivals or breaking into kitchens and targeting beer.

Germany isn’t the only place in Europe where raccoons are making a nuisance of themselves. A similar story of fur farms and war has caused an invasion of raton laveur (“little washing rats”) in France. Authorities in Madrid called for a raccoon culling in 2013 “to control and eradicate this unwelcome invasive species” that has made itself unwelcome in Spain. Scotland lists raccoons as one of the top 50 invasive, non-native species. The European Union has classified Pyroton lotor, the North American raccoon as an invasive species and banned their sale and import.

Though they look similar and share many of the same habits and dietary preferences, North American raccoons and Japanese raccoon dogs (tanuki) are not related.

In 1977, the anime Araiguma Rasukaru, telling the story of a man who adopted a pet raccoon, became a massive hit in Japan. Fans of Rascal the Raccoon began importing at least 1,500 raccoons a month to Japan. After realizing that raccoons don’t make good pets, many people then released them into the wild. The descendents of those raccoons today have spread to 42 of the 47 prefectures in Japan. They destroy crops, damage historic shrines, spread disease, and steal from fish and produce vendors. North American raccoons have begun to displace native Japanese “raccoon” dogs, tanuki.

Cohabitation with Humans

Though raccoons are more than happy to live in human areas, they can be vicious when defending themselves or their kits. But generally, even if people try to scare them off with noise or lights, raccoons are bold and simply back off to return later.

Humans should be particularly cautious of approaching raccoons in North America because they are common carriers of rabies, roundworms, and leptospirosis, according to The Humane Society. Having a raccoon as a pet is not recommended, even if you’re the President.

Grace Coolidge with Rebecca the raccoon at the 1927 White House Easter Egg Roll

In 1926, Vinnie Joyce in Mississippi sent a raccoon to the White House, promising the Coolidges that it had “a toothsome flavor” and would make a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. Rather than eating the furry gift, Calvin and Grace Coolidge named the raccoon Rebecca, gave her an embroidered collar, and invited her to participate in the White House Easter Egg Roll. At the end of Coolidge’s presidency, Rebecca went to live in Rock Creek Park in Maryland.


Raccoons are round, fuzzy creatures with bushy tails and a black fur mask around their eye area. They are about as big as small dogs, about 23 to 37 inches and 4 to 23 lbs., according to National Geographic.

They are adaptable and use their dexterous front paws and long fingers much like human hands to climb and manipulate things. These front paws are hyper-sensitive, particularly when wet. Raccoons in the wild use this extreme sensitivity to search for food underwater from the banks of streams.

Even in captivity, raccoons will often rub their food underwater before eating it. Scientists believe that, rather than washing their food, raccoons are softening the vibrissae on their paws, allowing them to feel their food more carefully to ensure it is safe.

With their clever paws and intelligent brains, raccoons can open locks, figure out traps, solve puzzles, and get into almost anything containing food. In studies, raccoons successfully opened complex locks 11 out of 13 times and then remembered the solutions when presented with the same locks later.

Raccoons live around 2 to 3 years in the wild, though raccoons in captivity can sometimes live as long as 20 years. But they are always with us.

Rocket is not actually a raccoon. He is a cybernetically-enhanced alien species from a planet in the Keystone Quadrant. Unlike Earth raccoons, he has opposable thumbs!

Baby raccoons are called kits or cubs and are usually born in the early summer. Females have one to seven offspring and are only pregnant for 2-2.5 months. A mother and her baby raccoons are called a nursery.

At birth, raccoon kits are blind and deaf. For the first two months of their lives, babies live in their den and nurse from their mothers. At 12 weeks, they will start to roam away from their mothers for whole nights at a time. They become completely independent at 8 to 12 months of age.

Coonpath Road is near the town where I grew up. The implication that coons follow a circuit or path is accurate. They are active from dusk to dawn, and when they raid my bird feeder, it is near the same time every night.

Bottom Line: Raccoons are fascinating creatures, but best observed from a distance.


I’m not talking people. One of my distant, distant ancestors, George Soule, was part of the first wave of immigrants arriving on the Mayflower. (Personal aside: I find it ironic that my descent from George Soule is through my half-Native American great-grandmother.)

No, this blog isn’t about people who’ve come here, or who might come here in the future.  But beware the plant and animal come heres!

The National Park Service defines an invasive species as a non-native species that causes harm to the environment, economy, or human, animal, or plant health (Executive Order 13751, Dec 3, 2020). Invasive species are one of the leading causes of global biodiversity loss. They can damage native habitats, spread diseases, cause extinctions, and leave massive cleanup bills in their wake.

The Best of Intentions

A Murmuration of Starlings

I recently wrote a blog about starlings, introduced to Central Park, NYC. One story is that Shakespeare lovers brought them to North America to benefit homesick European immigrants. Another is that an avid gardener imported starlings to eat a particular caterpillar invading his garden. Regardless of intentions, estimates of the devastation caused by starlings to crops and livestock range from $800 million and $1.6 billion per year.

Starlings are one example of a species brought to a new area on purpose.  People and businesses that import these species often do not anticipate the consequences. 


Buffelgrass, a hearty, drought-tolerant grass, originally comes from eastern Asia, southern Europe, and most of Africa. Ranchers introduced buffelgrass in Arizona in the 1930’s as livestock forage. Later, soil conservationists planted it for erosion control and soil stabilization. It has spread rapidly across the desert Southwest since the 1980s. Today, however, its rapid spread has converted fire-resistant desert into flammable grassland, threatening saguaro cacti and other indigenous species. Buffelgrass fires can reach 1600F and spread between 3 and 9 mph, depending on wind speeds.

Cheatgrass / Downy Brome

 A similar example is cheatgrass, or downy brome, a Eurasian native that now infests vast reaches of sagebrush steppe in the Intermountain West (including wilderness acreage). Cheatgrass ignites at a lower temperature, promoting hotter and more frequent fires that can reduce or eliminate native sagebrush and negatively impact shrub-steppe species, such as the greater sage grouse.

Faya Bush / Fire Tree

The Portuguese introduced the faya tree (also called the faya bush or fire tree), native to the Azores and the Canary Islands, to Hawaii for both practical and ornamental reason. This aggressively invasive exotic now displaces native forest trees in the Hawaii Volcanoes Wilderness and elsewhere on the Big Island.  In addition to competing with native species for habitat, faya trees add significant amounts of nitrogen to soil, which has the double impact of making it impossible for native species to grow and encouraging other invasive species in the area.

Arctic Fox

Although Arctic foxes are native to Alaska’s mainland, fur farmers introduced Arctic foxes on more than 450 Alaskan islands between 1750 and 1950. There, they threaten native seabirds by stealing eggs. (Ironically, human misbehavior may now be having the opposite effect in Norway, where littering motorists are attracting red foxes, which displace the formerly invasive Arctic foxes!)


Kudzu, or Japanese or Chinese arrowroot, has grown so ubiquitous that it has become a symbol of Southern American cultural identity.

Kudzu in Atlanta, GA

The US Soil Conservation Service introduced kudzu, a climbing perennial vine native to Japan and south-east China, during the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the first official World’s Fair in the U.S. Farmers and soil biologists first considered kudzu a great forage and ornamental plant because of its high-protein, starchy roots, sweet blooms, medicinal value, and impressive leaves. At first, people kept kudzu corralled to small pastures and in decorative pots.

Kudzu Overgrowing a Railroad Bridge in Arkansas

However, between the 1930s and 1950s, the Civilian Conservation Core promoted kudzu as a tool to prevent soil erosion. Botanists and nurseries distributed kudzu seedlings, and kudzu planting societies paid bounties to schools, farmers, highway maintenance, and even whole towns to plant kudzu all over the American South.

Highway and railroad developers planted kudzu seedlings to cover landscape gashes left bare by driving rail beds and road beds through formerly undeveloped land. Without grazing to keep growth in check, kudzu grows over anything in its way, killing other flora and foliage. An invasion of kudzu means leaf litter changes and decomposition processes alter, with a 28 per cent reduction in stocks of soil carbon, so the spread of the vine could contribute to climate change.

Kudzu Bug (Megacopta cribraria)

Kudzu may not be as serious a problem as it appears today. For one thing, kudzu often seems more ubiquitous than it really is because it grows most unchecked in areas where it is also most visible – along highways and railway embankments where passersby frequently encounter it. Some highway maintenance groups have brought small flocks of pigs and goats to graze in these areas, bringing some measure of control to the spread of the vines. For another, the kudzu bug, another recent “come-here” species, has been happily devouring kudzu vines all along the Atlantic seaboard, also eating many other legume plants they encounter. Perhaps we’ll soon be facing an infestation of wild pigs and kudzu bugs instead of kuduzu!

Control a Pest with Another Pest

Often, a species is introduced as a form of pest control. (See the above paragraph on starlings.) 

Harlequin Ladybird

One of the most invasive insect species is the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis), which tends to out-compete and eat native ladybirds. Agriculturalists introduced harlequin ladybirds, originally from central Asia, to Europe and North America in 1916 to control scale insects and aphids.  Not until 1988 did these ladybirds manage to establish themselves in the wild, after which their populations exploded. They still provide valuable pest-control services to farmers, but they also breed prolifically, displace and consume native insect species, potentially spread parasites, and invade homes.


Unlike the other invasive species on this list, the mosquitofish is native to North America, inhabiting shallow water away from larger fish in southern parts of Illinois and Indiana, throughout the Mississippi River. It has become an invasive species in other parts of the world, where scientists have intentionallly introduced the little creature to areas with large populations of mosquitoes to decrease the number of bugs by eating their larvae. In areas of South America and along the Black Sea, environmentalists estimate that the introduction of the mosquitofish has effectively eliminated malaria. However, native fish were already good at supplying ‘maximal control’ – introducing the mosquitofish has turned out to be more damaging to aquatic life.  Mosquitofish are aggressive and injure or kill other small fish. They are also very good at breeding, taking over natural habitats.

Asian mongoose

Sugar cane farmers introduced the small Asian mongoose to Hawaii in 1883 after hearing about Jamaican plantations unleashing the predator to control rat populations.  It was a mistake of epic proportions. Unfortunately, the targeted rats are nocturnal and the exotic mongooses are diurnal, so they never crossed paths. Rather than rats, the mongoose began eating the native birds instead. Mongoose threaten several sea turtle species and at least eight endangered bird species, including the Hawaiian state bird, the nēnē. They breed prolifically and reach sexual maturity early

The Ones That Got Away

Several invasive species descended from pets that escaped or were released into the wild. 

Burmese Python Fighting an Alligator

Many people have released pet Burmese pythons into the Everglades in Florida. These snakes can grow to 20 feet (6 meters) long.  Pythons, native to the jungles of southeast Asia, have few natural predators in the Everglades. They feast on many local species, including rabbits, possum, raccoons, deer, foxes, and even alligators. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission now hosts an annual Python Challenge, offering bounties and sometimes employing professional bounty hunters to encourage hunters to help control this invasive predators.


Lionfish are popular for aquariums, so it’s plausible that repeated escapes via aquarium releases  are responsible. Native to the Indo-Pacific ocean region, first detected along the Florida coast in the 1980s, lionfish are now quickly spreading throughout the coasts and coral reefs of the East Coast. Lionfish are voracious eaters and their venomous dorsal spines have helped to protect them, and they have very few natural predators in the Atlantic.

Silver Carp

Bighead carp and silver carp (native to China, also called Asian carps) are two large species of fish that escaped from fish farms in the 1990s and are now common in the Missouri River. They feed on plankton, floating in the water. They have become invasive by out-competing local species for food. For example, the feeding cycle of paddlefish is slower than that of the carp. There are now so many invasive carp in the lower Missouri River that paddlefish do not have enough food.

Many invasive species destroy habitat, the places where other plants and animals naturally live. 


Ranchers brought Nutria (large rodents native to South America) to North America in the 1900s, hoping to raise them for their fur. Some ranchers released the stock of Nutria into the wild when they failed to bring in the expected revenue. Today, they are a major pest in the Gulf Coast and Chesapeake Bay.  Nutria eat tall grasses and rushes, vital to the regions’ marshy wetlands. They provide food, nesting sites, and shelter for many organisms. They also help secure sediment and soil, preventing the erosion of land. Nutria destroy the area’s food web and habitat by consuming the wetland grasses.

Paper Mulberry Tree

A silkworm’s favorite food is the leaves of the paper mulberry tree. US entrepreneurs thought that if they introduced the foliage, they could start their own silk industry. Unfortunately, the climate was not appropriate for the silkworm and the mulberry is a highly invasive species. Rather than feeding silkworms, paper mulberry trees began disrupting the natural ecosystem.  The mulberry tree consumes an extremely high amount of water, which chokes the native foliage. Its root systems are also very strong and fast-growing – they tend to cause problems with drainage pipes.

Let’s Not Overlook Ornamentals

Kudzu was not the only plant originally introduced as an ornament.

The introduction of English ivy dates back to the early 1700s when European colonists imported the plant as an easy-to-grow evergreen groundcover.  Today, people continue to sell and plant English ivy in the United States even though it is one of the worst spread-invasive plants because it can handle a wide range of conditions, particularly on the east and west coasts. English ivy is an aggressive-spreading vine which can slowly kill trees by restricting light. It spreads by vegetative reproduction and when its seeds hitch a ride in the digestive systems of birds.

Purple Loosestrife

Horticulturists introduced purple loosestrife to the United States in the early 1800s for ornamental and medicinal uses.  Now growing invasively in most states, purple loosestrife can become the dominant plant species in wetlands. One plant can produce as many as 2 million wind-dispersed seeds per year and underground stems grow at a rate of 1 foot per year. Beginning in the 1980s, biologists encouraged several species of leaf beetles and moths to build habitats in areas overrun with purple loosestrife, creating what scientists are hailing as a model of biological pest control.

Japanese Honeysuckle

One of many invasive varieties of honeysuckle in the United States, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) first came to Long Island, NY, in 1806 for ornamental use and erosion control. The Japanese honeysuckle has can grow in deep shade and is particularly detrimental to forest lands in the Northeast. The heavily fruiting plant forms a dense thicket, crowding out native plants, and birds spread the seeds far and wide. The plant has become prolific throughout much of the East Coast as it adapts to a wide range of conditions. Japanese honeysuckle is an aggressive vine that smothers, shades and girdles other competing vegetation. Many birds eat the fruit of this plant, thereby spreading the honeysuckle’s seeds.

Japanese Barberry

Japanese barberry was introduced to the United States in the 1800s as an ornamental. Growers shipped seeds of Japanese barberry from Russia to the Arnold Arboretum in 1875 as an alternative to European barberry (Berberis vulgaris), which had fallen out of favor as it was a host to Black Rust Stem—a serious fungus effecting cereal crops. In addition to forming such dense growth thickets that they crowd out other plant species, Japanese barberry plants provide ideal shelters for the black-legged ticks carrying lyme disease.

Norway Maple

The plant explorer John Bartram introduced the Norway maple to the United States from England in 1756. Its widely adaptable growth pattern led to a rapid rise in popularity, particularly in towns and in rural communities.  The Norway maple displaces native trees and has the potential to dominate a landscape in both the Northeast and Northwest. It displaces native maples like the sugar maple and its dense canopy shades out wildflowers.

Golden Bamboo

Bamboo native to Asia is highly invasive and damaging in the United States thanks to its aggressive spreading abilities. There are two species that are especially problematic in Virginia: Phyllostachys aurea (Golden Bamboo) and Phyllostachys aureosulcata (Yellow Groove Bamboo). Once this plant is established, it is difficult to remove. It can grow up to a foot a day and crowd out other plants. Underground runners choke the root systems of native plants, sending up new shoots beyond the original planting area. If you really want to grow ornamental bamboo, consider one of the three bamboo species native to the U.S.: hill cane (Arundinaria appalachiana), river cane (Arundinaria gigantea), and switch cane (Arundinaria tecta).

International Hitchhikers

Brown Norway Rat

Invasive species are primarily spread by human activities, often unintentionally. People, and the goods we use, travel around the world very quickly, and they often carry uninvited species with them.  One of the most famous historical hitchikers may be the fleas that spread the Black Death in the 14th Century.

Modern international shipping still unwittlingly spreads invasive species. Rats from Norway have escaped from ships and endanger Alaska’s island-nesting seabird populations.  Many ships carry aquatic organisms in their ballast water, while smaller boats may carry them on their propellers.

Zebra Mussels

“Many invasive species are introduced into a new region accidentally.  Zebra mussels are native to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in Central Asia.  Zebra mussels arrived in the Great Lakes of North America accidentally, stuck to large ships that traveled between the two regions. There are now so many zebra mussels in the Great Lakes that they have threatened native species.”

National Geographic

In addition, small zebra mussels clog the cooling systems in boat engines, while larger ones have damaged water pipes at power plants throughout the Great Lakes.  This isn’t the only invasive species that causes property damage.

Insects can get into wood, shipping palettes, and crates that are shipped around the world.

Spotted Lanternfly
  • Borwn marmorated stink bugs feed on crops and ornamental plants. They stowed away, probably in shipping containers, coming to North American at some point in the 1990s.
  • Spotted wing drosophila, rather than feeding on overripe fruit like most flies, targets and damages unripe or barely ripe fruit, making it extra destructive. They likely hitched a ride on fruit imported to Hawaii from their native Asia in the 1980s and into the continental US in 2008.
  • The khapra beetle attacks stored grain and can cause it to lose 70 percent of its weight or value. The Invasive Species Specialist Group ranks it among the 100 worst invasive species of all time.
  • The spotted lanterfly hitched a ride to Pennsylvania in 2014, most likely by attaching its eggs to something imported from southern China or Vietnam. It is not quite invasive yet, but it looks inevitable that it will be soon.

Beware climate change

In addition, higher average temperatures and changes in rain and snow patterns caused by climate change will enable some invasive plant species—such as garlic mustard, kudzu, and purple loosestrife—to move into new areas.  Insect pest infestations will be more severe as pests such as mountain pine beetle are able to take advantage of drought-weakened plants.

Rising Temperatures Thawing Arctic Sea Ice Bring New Invasive Species to the Area

Note: Not all non-native species are invasive. For example, most of the food crops grown in the United States, including popular varieties of wheat, tomatoes, and rice, are not native to the region. Personally, I’m delighted by the availability of hellebores.  

In conclusion: Only a small percent of introduced species become invasive. However, it is nearly impossible—even for scientists—to predict which species will become invasive. Some species are present for many years before they exhibit invasive characteristics. And new species are being introduced every day. 

Bottom Line: Invasive species are among the leading threats to native wildlife. Approximately 42 percent of threatened or endangered species are at risk due to invasive species. Be aware!


Collective nouns fascinate me, as I’ve mentioned before. I’ve heard a group of starlings called a “murmuration” most often, but I’ve also seen

Murmuration of starlings
Murmuration of Starlings in France
  • A chattering of starlings
  • A cloud of starlings
  • A clutter of starlings
  • A congregation of starlings
  • A flock of starlings
  • A scintillation of starlings

In mid-January, a starling showed up at our bird feeder. A week or so later, we saw two. A few days ago, we had a whole clutter of them! 

Starlings are boisterous, loud, and they travel in large groups (often with blackbirds and grackles).

Attractive Starlings

Juvenile European starling
Adult European starling feeding a juvenile

Their appearance changes with age and seasons. Young ones are more brown than black.

Summer starling plumage
Starling plumage in summer

In fresh winter plumage they are brown, covered in brilliant white spots.  In summer they are purplish-green iridescent—but not as blue-black iridescent as grackles.

Their legs are officially pink, though I’ve  always thought they look more yellow. The bill is black in winter and yellow in summer.

Bigger than chickadees, smaller than blue jays, starlings seem to me to be about the size of cardinals.

Winter starling plumage
Starling plumage in winter

Starlings have diverse and complex vocalizations and have been known to embed sounds from their surroundings into their own calls, including car alarms and human speech patterns. The birds can recognize particular individuals by their calls and are the subject of research into the evolution of human language.

Starlings are active, social birds. Pet starlings notoriously bond closely with their caretakers and seek them out for companionship. Although wild birds, they are easy to tame and keep as pets. Their normal lifespan is about 15 years, possibly longer in captivity.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart kept a pet starling for several years. He may have written his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, (K. 453) as an adaptation of the bird’s song. When it died, Mozart held an elaborate funeral for it, calling on all the mourners to sing the bird a requiem in procession.

Mozart starling song
Mozart’s notation of his starling’s song, written in his expense book in 1784, to which he added the note “Vogel Stahrl 34 Kr. … Das war schön!” (Starling’s song, 34 Kreuzer… That was beautiful!)

“Come Here” Starlings

Starling foraging
Starling foraging

As the story goes, Eugene Schieffelin—an eccentric pharmacist in the Bronx—was an Anglophile and a Shakespeare aficionado. As deputy of a group whose goals included introducing European species that would be “interesting and useful” and benefit homesick immigrants.  Schieffelin, it is believed, latched onto the goal of bringing every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to Central Park, and he zeroed in on the Bard’s single reference to a starling in Henry IV.

HOTSPUR: He said he would not ransom Mortimer,
Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer.
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll hollo “Mortimer.”
Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.

Henry IV, Part 1 (Act I, Scene 3, Line 228)
Winter starling

However, according to Eugene Schieffelin’s obituary in 1906, he imported starlings for an entirely different reason — to wage war on a particular type of caterpillar that was invading his garden. In fact, researchers at Alleghany College published an article in 2021 arguing that the story of Schieffelin’s obsession with Shakespeare grew out of social and political anti-immigrant sentiments common at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In any case, starlings are an introduced species to America and have adapted well to urban life, which offers abundant nesting and food sites.  It took them just 80 years to populate the continent.  They are a ubiquitous, nonnative, invasive species. There are so many that no one can count them—estimates run to about 200 million. Genetic research shows that all of these millions of birds descended from the original 80 or so birds Eugene Schieffelin released in Central Park. They’ve behaved atrociously in their New World. 

Despised Starlings

Starlings can damage grass turf as they search for food.  While looking for worms, the extremely strong beaks of these birds often damage the root systems of the grasses they pull up. Large flocks can destroy crops in your garden and disturb your newly seeded lawn when the birds feed on seeds and berries.

The US Department of Agriculture officially classifies European starlings as an invasive species. Many biologists despise starlings  for their reputed ability to outcompete native birds for food and a limited number of nest sites.  

Nesting starlings
Starling chicks in their crevice nest

They nest in cavities, and each spring they seek crevices in buildings, homes, and birdhouses, as well as holes that have been carved into trees and poles by woodpeckers. They compete for these sites with other cavity nesters, including chickadees, bluebirds and swallows. Because starlings do not have to migrate south for the winter, they are able to claim the best nesting sites before breeding season begins.

Common starling

This is my major concern: that a clutter of starlings will drive out native Virginia birds currently in our backyard (goldfinch, cardinal, blue jay, tufted titmouse, house finch, blue birds, woodpeckers, chickadee, flicker, wren, brown thrush, even the occasional sharp-shinned hawk and (a few) mockingbirds. 

One hopeful possibility: “The evidence that this competition has led to significant population declines is pretty slim, at best,” says Walter Koenig, ornithologist and researcher.

Also, one significant point to remember: starlings thrive in areas that are disturbed by human presence, including dense urban environments, places where more sensitive species cannot survive in the long term.  Maybe native birds are simply finding more hospitable locations.

Disastrous Starlings

However, starlings can cause actual public disasters.  In 1960, Eastern Airlines Flight 375 took off from Boston’s Logan Airport for Philadelphia and other points south. Seconds after takeoff, it collided with a flock of 20,000 starlings. Two of the four engines lost power, the plane plunged into the sea, and 62 people died.  This remains the worst airline crash—in terms of human fatality—that was ever caused by a collision with birds. See the 2017 article Even If We Don’t Love Starlings, We Should Learn to Live With Them by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

From the same article: “After that crash, officials tested seasoned pilots on flight simulators to see if any could have saved the plane in such a scenario. All failed.  In subsequent tests, live starlings were thrown into running engines. It was found that just three or four birds could cause a dangerous power drop.”  

Starling flock livestock

Although starlings’ ecological sins might be overstated, their devastating effects on agriculture are beyond doubt. 

Starlings damage apples, blueberries, cherries, figs, grapes, peaches, and strawberries. Besides causing direct losses from eating fruits, starlings peck and slash at fruits, reducing product quality and increasing the fruits’ susceptibility to diseases and crop pests. They also lurk around farmyards and lots where they binge on feed in the troughs of cattle and swine.

Starling feeding

The US Department of Agriculture counts the devastation as high as $800 million annually. Some researchers estimate that starling cause approximately $1.6 billion of damage to crops and livestock every year.

Dealing with Starlings

The good news is that for the last thirty years or so starling populations have been stable. Every species has a carrying capacity, the number of individuals that can thrive in a given place without exhausting resources, and perhaps starlings are there.

Ecologically, starlings’ presence lies somewhere between highly unfortunate and utterly disastrous.

Starlings are not protected in Virginia or by the federal government, which means that we can remove the starlings and their nests at any time of the year.  We might also fill the bird feeders with food they don’t like, block potential nesting sites, and prune trees to deny cover for flocks. If these starlings turn out to be particularly stubborn, we might even play recordings of hawks and predator calls or simply bang pots outside to drive them off.

Bottom Line: Whatever a bunch of starlings are called, they are definitely a nuisance—maybe even a disaster!