Wood Duck Society

The Dump Nest


The Starling Dilemma

By Roger Strand

Starling on guard duty at the next box. A challenge for a hen wood duck.

A recent visitor to this website left the following question:  “How can you discourage starlings from taking over a wood duck house?  I have had wood ducks nest in the yard, but in the last few years, the starlings have literally jumped on the wood duck hen as she tried to enter the nest box.  Is there some sort of trap I could use?”  The questioner is not alone in his dilemma.

 Starlings can sometimes effectively wipe out wood duck production in local areas.  They are cavity nesters, and compete aggressively for the use of nest boxes.  Since their introduction from Europe in 1890, starlings have spread all across the country to completely overlap the range of the wood duck.  They are an alien species and are not protected by law.

In Ecology and Management of the Wood Duck (Stackpole Books1994), authors Bellrose and Holm concluded:  “Of the many species of animals competing for nest boxes, starlings provide the greatest threat to wood ducks.”

Most starling interference with wood duck nesting occurs during the prospecting and egg-laying phases, when the hen is only present for a short period each day.  Starlings may make small puncture holes in woodie eggs when the hen is away.  They commonly will bury the duck eggs under several inches of the coarse plant materials they use in constructing their own nest.

When the wood duck hen returns, she is often attacked by the starlings, now defending their new turf.  At times they will gang up.  Art Hawkins, pioneer waterfowl manager, once reported seeing eight of these birds harassing a hen, several of which affixed themselves to her back, riding her to the ground while pecking at her head.

Searching for preventative solutions, Don Helmeke experimented with innovative box designs, but full-fledged success remained elusive.  Another Wood Duck Society member, in desperation, tried to repel starlings by hanging rubber snakes near his boxes-- it didn’t work.  To be successful, the wood duck manager must go into an attack-and-destroy mode, directly targeting the offending starlings.

Traps, specifically designed to fit inside a wood duck house, have been found to be effective.  George Wellenkotter lives in a serious Wisconsin starling belt.  He developed an in-box trap for his own use which utilizes a spring mechanism to close a trapdoor, effectively capturing the starling inside the box.  George manufactures these and offers them for sale.  One customer trapped 500 starlings over a period of five years!   You may contact George at 309 Randolph Street; Edgerton, WI  53534.

To supplement his trapping efforts, Wellenkotter once tried hanging dead starlings—voodoo fashion—around the boxes. Sad to say, this seemed to have no effect on the remaining live birds.

Shotguns and rifles have been effective in some rural settings, but it’s not as easy as it may sound.  On my own unit in West Central Minnesota, starlings have presented only spotty problems, nearly all related to boxes located near our farmstead buildings.  I employ an effective but time consuming method of control, using .22 caliber birdshot ammunition.  The gun is fired from a tent blind set up twenty feet or less from the box (you must be very close.)  Enter the blind before dawn, pour a cup of coffee, and wait for the offending starlings to arrive.  They may perch near the box at first, which makes it easy.  If they enter the box, they will eventually reappear for guard-duty on the edge of the hole—a fatal habit in this scenario.  The fine birdshot won’t really harm the box, in contrast to a blast from a shotgun.

The use of gunfire and traps must be coupled with mechanical removal of starling nests whenever encountered.  After nest removal, the female may desert the box, particularly if she had begun incubating (or recently hatched) her clutch of greenish blue, speckled eggs.

Like wood ducks, starlings have an instinct to return to a previously successful nest site.  Therefore, as in other aspects of box management, regular monitoring is necessary—this time to avoid a string of successful starling hatches.

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