By Robert Mulvihill / National Aviary ornithologist
African glossy-starlings are a group of 20-odd passerines (the song-, or perching birds) that have striking, often iridescent, colors and bold patterns rivaling tropical hummingbirds, African sunbirds and (absent their highly modified feathers) even the birds-of-paradise from Papua New Guinea. The golden-breasted starling, a slender robin-sized bird with a gleaming metallic green head and purple chest, iridescent violet-blue back and wings, bright golden-yellow belly, a very long thin tail and bright white eyes, is one of 20 species of glossy-starling.
Native to savannas and thorn-scrub habitats in eastern African, golden-breasted starlings live in noisy family groups of up to a dozen birds. They feed on a variety of insects, including termites, which they can work together to dig out of their dirt mounds. At the National Aviary, eye-catching golden-breasted starlings frequently steal the show during the daily interactive Tropical Forest feeding, boldly snatching "worms" out of the hands of delighted visitors.
The golden-breasted (sometimes called "royal") starling is among some 500 bird species that employ a "cooperative breeding" life history strategy. This means they live in extended family groups of up to a dozen birds who work together to provide food and protection for the young of a single dominant breeding pair within the group. They are secondary cavity nesters -- they nest in tree holes made by other birds. Secondary cavity nesters will also use constructed nest boxes, and we provide these for our golden-breasted starlings at the National Aviary.
Glossy-starlings are just a subgroup in the much larger starling family, Sturnidae, which contains more than 120 species. This includes the ubiquitous European starling, an extraordinarily adaptable species that flourished after being introduced into New York City's Central Park by a person who hoped to bring all of Shakespeare's birds to North America. The descendants of just 60 or so starlings released in 1890 now number more than 100 million birds, and the species can be found coast-to-coast and from Alaska to Mexico.
The European starling is common, invasive and, in some places and situations, unwelcome. But like many members of its family, it is nonetheless an attractive-looking bird up close, with its glossy green and purple head and body feathers and long bright yellow bill. In looks it can't compete, though, with the sleek golden-breasted starling, recently nominated in the "Best Dressed" category at the "Birds on Film" festival at the National Aviary.
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