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Starlings, Tamarisk Beetles & Cheatgrass

posted by CarlIngwell at
on Tuesday, January 18, 2011 

"Biotic pollution, the introduction of a foreign species into an area where it is not native, often upsets the balance among the organisms living in that area and interferes with the ecosystem's normal functioning. Unlike other forms of pollution, which may be cleaned up, biotic pollution is usually permanent." –Solomon, Berg, Martin. Biology.

Removal of a native species or addition of an exotic species usually has drastic consequences on the local ecosystem. When it comes to additions, Phragmites, Starlings, Russian Olives, Salt Cedar or Tamarisk, Zebra Mussels, and Cheatgrass all come to mind. When it comes to removals, I think of the Gray Wolf.


Now that the Gray Wolf is absent in the Southwest, ungulate herds runs unchecked; when Elk and Deer numbers are too high, they destroy native vegetation. Since the Gray Wolf has been eradicated, coyote populations have increased, which decreases the population of small game such as rabbits, voles, etc. When there isn't enough small game in an area, it affects Red-Tailed Hawks, Golden Eagles, and other birds of prey. It's been known for a long time that the removal of an ecosystems top predator will greatly affect that ecosystem.


The addition of a species to an ecosystem can also have dire consequences. The Great Basin ecosystem has been evolving to its present state for millions of years. The organisms here have been coevolving with each other for hundreds of thousands of years. Everything worked pretty well together before we started shuffling the deck.

Recently I've been worried about the Tamarisk Beetle. The Tamarisk Beetle is a Eurasian species of beetle that eats (you guessed it) Tamarisk. So what's the big deal? The beetle eats and destroys Tamarisk, which is a non-native, exotic species; when they kill all the Tamarisk, the beetle dies off too, right? What worries me is that the Tamarisk beetle could evolve to exploit other food sources. Many beetles in the history of the world have shown such an ability to evolve in short periods of time. What would happen if the Tamarisk Beetle suddenly evolved into the Fremont Cottonwood Beetle?


So why would it hurt to introduce a Starling (I have to tie this into birds somehow)? Birds have been coevolving with their environments for the past 66 million years. In a way, birds are genetically programmed to kind of know what to expect throughout their lives. They were anyway. We introduced European Starlings to the United States in 1890; that's 120 years ago. Our native species have been coevolving with their environment for the past 66 million years, and 120 years ago we threw them a huge curveball.


One thing that impresses people about Starlings is their ability to outcompete other species and survive in a hostile environment in which they are not endemic. To me, that's what is scary about Starlings: They outcompete native bird populations. Starlings are cavity nesters that outcompete native species of birds. I think it's safe to state that most of our cavity nesters in the state of Utah have been affected by the arrival of European Starlings. It's not about one species displacing another. This very well could be about 1 species displacing 20 or 30 other species. Here are just a few, off the top of my head, which I think could be affected by Starlings: Lucy's Warbler, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Western Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Wood Duck, American Kestrel, Purple Martin (not in Utah), House Wren, etc. I'm sure there are many more. I also read a study on Starlings displacing Gila Woodpeckers in Arizona.


Starlings are terrible for our native bird populations, and I think they should be managed a little more intensively. Should we all go buy bb guns and take out a handful on a weekly basis? Maybe. Should we destroy their nests when they set up shop in our Kestrel or Bluebird boxes? Probably. Should we knock their nests out of our roofs, trees, buildings, and bridges? Probably.


Exotics don't belong in Utah. The Utah ecosystem has shown that it isn't fit to deal with exotic, introduced species. The more that we introduce, and the less that we control the ones we already have, the worse it will get.

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8 Comments:
Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

I guess the conversation was more fun on Utah Birdtalk. Oh well.

January 19, 2011 at 11:50 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

I think it is a great topic to discuss--but I think everyone got their grievances out on the birdlist.

I'm on your side Carl, get the BB gun and a broom!

January 19, 2011 at 5:49 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lofthouse said...

I am not picking sides in this arguement, but just want to record an observartion. In 2008 for the GBBC 7909 Starlings were reported in Hyrum. I am sure that most of these were seen at the feed yards.

In 2010 GBBC 300 Starlings were reported in Hyrum.

January 22, 2011 at 9:03 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lofthouse said...

"Exotics don't belong in Utah. The Utah ecosystem has shown that it isn't fit to deal with exotic, introduced species. The more that we introduce, and the less that we control the ones we already have, the worse it will get."

Be careful. Let us remember that the "exotic" which has caused the most change and or damage to the ecosystem, is "we the people".

January 22, 2011 at 3:12 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Jim,

So are you saying that there being less starlings at one location during the GBBC is a bad thing? I would say it is a good thing, but would also point out that this single data point is rather unimportant in the grand scheme of things. For starters just because starlings weren't counted as part of a yearly count doesn't mean they declined, it simply means they weren't in the count area at the time of the count, or observed during the count. Starling are know to move from feed lot to feed lot in search of food, and although they often visit the same ares to feed and roost, it is not uncommon for them to move around. Also a single day or weekend count has a number of problems. Weather, number of observers, number of reports, etc can all lead to skewed data from one year to the next.

Furthermore, The numbers from the GBBC don't really show trends all that well. Being a reviewer for the GBBC I can attest to something that if you look into the data seems odd. In 2008 we were asked to highly publicize the event, and I sent quite a few emails reminding and asking people to take part. That year more than 120,000 individuals of 163 species were reported in Utah. Compare that to 2007 when there was not push, and Utah records a mere 34,000 individuals of 129 species. In the 2009 and 2010 there was also no marketing but the species totals stayed between 155-160. The totals however, were between 50-60,000, half as many as the 2008.

In 2008 there were also 767,000 starlings reported across the United States during the GBBC, the following two years the numbers ranges from 510-550,000. So based off that we could say that there was a drastic die-off in starlings, 2/7 of the population between 2008 and 2009. But that would be very unscientific, and not true. The factors I talked about at the beginning are the contributing reasons, as well as the marketing push in 2008. They are just numbers and without someone diving more into the information they don't mean a whole lot.

Cheers
Tim

January 22, 2011 at 3:59 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

James,

About your 2nd comment. I don't think anyone disagrees that humans are the biggest factor in disruptions of native species. We are the ultimate exotic. We are also the determining factor in the species we introduce to these ecosystems, and have a responsibility to make sure we don't cause further unnecessary damage than we already are. There are things we can control, and introducing non native species that could balloon out of control is something we should try to work on.

I don't want to sound rude to anyone, but believing that starlings,house sparrows, rock pigeons, eurasian collared-dove, rats, feral cats, carp, etc, add something that improves an ecosystem shows a lack of understanding the ecosystem. If the great creator, or evolution, or whatever anyone wants to believe caused things to be how they are--wanted these species here in the first place they would have been here. But that isn't the case--WE brought these creatures here and introduced them, and in the cases above the exotics destroyed the natural way of things.

Starlings displaced Mountain Bluebirds--this is a fact, not a hypothesis or something we are just assuming.

House Sparrows have displaced native sparrows, they didn't fill a void, they took over where song sparrows would and should be found.

Collared-doves are displacing Mourning Doves. It isn't happening at an astonishing rate, but in rural areas I certainly see more ECDO than MODO anymore.

Carp--talk about what a cluster f*ck that one was. The damage caused to rivers and lakes everywhere in the United States is pretty much irreversible, and following the damage to the vegetation, and the soil--native populations of water born insects have been displaced and destroyed, followed by fish and amphibians that relied on them. Our rivers were not designed for carp, and the results have been pretty catastrophic.

And we all know what rat and feral cat populations do to native songbirds... That's a post for another day.

It's fine to think what you want, and have your point of view. But in this instance there is scientific fact to back up the statement that Carl makes. To ignore it or not believe it seems almost ignorant--or no caring of the issue.

Cheers
Tim

January 22, 2011 at 4:15 PM  
Anonymous James said...

I expressed no opinion at all. I made a couple of observations.

January 25, 2011 at 11:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The starlings in this So California neighborhood are in the process of displacing our sparrows. The starlings are running the sparrows out of their nesting tree very aggressively! I find starlings messy and now must cover our outdoor tables.

February 3, 2012 at 8:44 AM  

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