Nov 30 2008
Pittsburgh used to be the shore of the inland sea. In those days a salty body of water similar to the Persian Gulf lapped at our doorsteps.
But that was long, long ago. We haven’t been at the beach for 300 million years.
Without an ocean, or even a large lake, sandpipers are a very rare sight in Pittsburgh. We have no flocks of shorebirds combing our beaches, poking their beaks in the mud and flying in squadrons. But in winter I think we have a land-based substitute: the European starling.
Yes, I know it’s a stretch to make this comparison but consider the similarities.
Starlings fly in synchronous flocks banking and turning in unison like shorebirds. When threatened by a predator, starling flocks form a flying ball even more impressive than the tight gyrations of shorebirds under siege. When they’re not trying to stay together starlings, like shorebirds, fly in a big loose bunch.
Flying isn’t the only similarity. Starling flocks feed by swarming across a field probing the ground for food. In the spring they advance across my backyard poking holes in the sod in search of grubs. In this they resemble red knots or dunlin.
Starlings are about the same size as dunlin and like many shorebirds, have relatively short wings and tails.
But here my ability to draw similarities ends. Much as I’d like it, Pittsburgh is not at the ocean and starlings are not shorebirds. The best I can do is to think of them as “Landpipers.”
(photo by Chad & Chris Saladin of European starlings disturbed by a juvenile peregrine. Click here to see starlings evading a hunting peregrine in Italy.)
Here’s a BBC video of 5 million starlings in Rome.