The Joy of Superb StarlingsBy John Paul Kilmer
I first fell in love with Superb Starlings (Spreo superbus) as a boy in the African mission field. An unabashed birder practically before I could walk, I thrived on my foreign upbringing, keeping detailed lists of the birds and animals I observed. Suberbs gained my admiration immediately because.... well, simply put, they are superb! There’s no other way to describe this handsome starling with a bronzy-black crown, iridescent nape throat and back, and orange belly, white chest band, and white underparts. They have what I like to call... a “fierce yellow eye.”
In my book, Superbs are rivaled in the starling world only by a handful of others, including the Golden-breasted Starling. Where I lived in the east African country of Kenya, Superbs were as common as robins are in the United States, hopping joyously about our metal house and singing endless metallic notes from the acacias during the heat of the day. During the breeding season when a full moon rose, male Superbs could be heard singing ecstatically throughout the whole night. I imagined them plump and secure in their thornbush fortresses, throwing hearts to the inky sky while the females slept protectively over the eggs.
I still recall a journal entry I wrote about these magnificent birds a number of years ago. We had just received our first refreshing rain after the dry season: “As I walked back to the house...the whole world seemed to be rejoicing. The damp scent of soil was heavy on the air. Leaves shed the last drops form the recent downpour....starlings in the acacias shrieked with joy, ruffling and preening their well watered feathers into place. And I could hear the earth drinking.”
I was told the trio consisted of a male and two females. Immediately when I got home, I placed the 18 cm birds in a temporary box-type flight cage, measuring 4 feet tall, 2 ½ feet deep, and 3 ½ feet wide. They settled right in, feeding eagerly on a diet of diced mango and papaya, mealworms, soaked Zupreem monkey biscuit, Bevo, and Zupreem cockatiel fruit blend.
Several weeks after purchase, the birds started showing breeding behavior, ripping paper strips from the bottom of the cage and carrying them around in their beaks, joyfully singing. I removed one female from the cage and placed a small 8" square nest box towards the top of the cage. I also placed fresh Ficus leaves on the cage floor. These were immediately investigated, seized, and carried about excitedly. The starlings, however, would not enter the nest box, though they would sit on the perch and peer curiously into the hole. After a week of investigation with no real nesting intentions, I removed the nest box and cut part of the front out to form a half open fronted box. It was immediately accepted. I then supplied the pair with a great deal of dry grass for nesting material. The “bonding phase” appeared to take several weeks, with the male and female both singing to each other, carrying leaves and pieces of grass back and forth, and slowly working on the nest. I also added shredded paper and paper towel for nesting material, and all was accepted. After several weeks, the nest was completed, with a slight dome of grass over the actual nest cup in the box.
Superbs in the wild will often build deep in a dense thornbush. The branches surrounding their nest serves to hold the loose grasses together. In Kenya I saw many such nests with domed tops and side entrance holes, not unlike that of a sloppy weaver bird. I was ecstatic when 3 dark blue eggs appeared. I have since read that the actual clutch size is four, but my birds have only produced clutches of 2-3 eggs.
During incubation, the female rarely left the nest. The male sang frequently and would occasionally bring her food. However, she generally left the nest for short intervals to feed herself. I noticed very little incubation by the male. After 13 days, three healthy chicks emerged, peeping to be fed! I offered mealworms, soaked monkey biscuit, and hard boiled egg. Unfortunately, my first mistake was to offer as many mealworms as the parents would feed the chicks. All went well for approximately a week. Then all the chicks mysteriously died. In researching the problem, I realized that the adults were feeding the chicks almost entirely on mealworms. Such young digestive systems cannot tolerate large amounts of tough chiton, and the chicks almost certainly died of bowel impaction. Within days the parents were hard at work repairing the nest.
Two eggs hatched from the second brood and this time I was careful to monitor mealworm intake. I only offered 12-15 mealworms a day. These were eagerly snatched up by the parents and most were fed directly to the babies. During the nestling period, I noticed that the male occasionally fed the babies, but the female probably fed about twice as often, if not more. Both the male and female often gave voice to warbling notes while feeding the chicks. Approximately 20 days out, the chicks fledged, and mysteriously died the next day. This happened with the successive brood as well. I later learned that I had provided too small of a nest box. The chicks were fledging early, and unable to fly about, the huddled on the bottom, refusing to adequately beg food from their parents given their new surroundings.
During this past summer, I built several large flights in my barn and released my starlings into them. They immediately set about cheerfully building a nest in a huge 15" half open fronted nest box with high sides. I perfected my chick rearing food to the following: Daily hard boiled egg, finely mashed and mixed with 4-5 soaked monkey pellets. Over the top I occasionally sprinkled Bevo Insectivorous mix, and daily offer 15 or so mealworms. I have also found wax worms to be an invaluable food source for young starlings. The soft bodies of the wax worms are easily digested, and chicks appear to put on weight more quickly with added wax worms. The combination of a larger flight, larger nest box, and adequate nestling food did the trick. I am now the proud owner of two non-related adult pairs of breeding starlings, and six juveniles, all hatched and raised during this past summer and fall. All the juveniles sport brown eyes, and these will apparently not turn yellow until the birds are a year old. Although they appear to be the same color scheme of the parents, they have not yet molted into their stunning adult plumage. I find it exciting that breeding softbills does not always require huge amounts of live food, as the last brood of chicks has been fed fewer mealworms and almost exclusively on the egg and monkey pellet mixture.
Of interest is one of my starling pair’s eagerness to continually breed. I have nailed plastic to the walls of my outdoor flights and supplied several simple ceramic heaters inside the cages this winter. Still, the temperature stays only just above freezing at times, and outdoors, snow blankets the ground. Despite this, one starling pair continues to lay eggs and rear young, who don’t seem to be the slightest bit affected by the cold! Finally I was forced to remove the nest box to give the female a rest.
As has been noted by other authors, juvenile Superbs often assist parents in caring for nestlings. This has occurred in my case as well. Starlings have the bad reputation of being aggressive. However, aside from a few mild spats, I have seen wonderful harmonized relationships among my flock. Young ones learn valuable parenting skills looking after the smaller chicks. I have noted no hostility on the part of either of the parents towards their chicks after the older brood is weaned. Indeed, in Kenya I often recall seeing colony-type nesting behaviors.
This delightful bird is certainly a keeper in my estimation! Superbs are extremely easy to feed and house, and make engaging, beautiful pets. My next venture is to hand rear one of the chicks. I can only imagine the joys of a hand-tamed Superb Starling!
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