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Text and Photographs Pompie Burger
If there were a lion behind every second bush, or a leopard in every tree, would they be so special? Would photographers want to shoot them (to protect them), would photographers drive off-road or into a no-entry road to get a better angle on their million dollar picture? I have in fact seen people drive all over each other to get a closer look at a lion, to get to the front of the scene of the crime. Imagine, for a lion! Luckily no photographer will ever do that. The point I want to make about starlings is that they are too common. Most of the starlings have a metallic sheen flashing back when the sun touches their feathers, but unfortunately they are not so special because they are just too common. This might be where this terrible word is coming from: ‘common’, like too many seen too often. Possibly it is also because they are robust and gregarious. Let’s rather call them plebeian.
At a certain time of the year in Britain there is a most mesmeric aerial display of European Starlings. It involves over five million birds flying in almost perfect formations, which to a large extent makes them actually extremely special – not common at all. Unfortunately, they are also the greatest fruit pest in North America and therefore end up being regarded as common. Somehow, if you cannot be exclusive in numbers you are somehow degraded to the common. Maybe if you can do some sort of Chinese trick (no offence) like flying upside down or walking on water it will add to your uncommonness. Unfortunately, starlings can do none of these things, not in Namibia anyway. They cannot sing too beautifully, they cannot walk on water or construct nice nests, and most importantly they are common in numbers.
The Violet-backed Starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster) is the one exception as far as the Namibian starlings are concerned: it is not common and it is also beautiful. This starling’s colour is probably the most impressive of all birds (almost). Why the scientists have called it leucogaster (white stomach) still remains a secret to me. The fact that it is a migrant might be the reason why it is so special. The female Violet-backed Starling also has a very attractive dress, looking very different to the male but in its own right a handsome bird with heavily streaked breast and belly. It arrives in the north of Namibia by the end of August, only to depart back to northern Africa by April. The Violet-backed Starlings are the only migrants except for the Wattled Starlings (Creatophora cinerea) – which are only nomadic, however, and not fancy over-the-border migrants.
If you really want to exceptionalise Wattled Starlings: they are very unconventional looking birds. In their full going-away dress they do look funny/ugly with their black wattle, but if you see them during wintertime you might even feel sorry for them. Apart from being an LBJ look-alike, they have this very poorly shaped body, long neck and head which might fit the summer dress but does not really go with this winter outfit (sounds pretty much like a teenager). Again, due to the fact that they are not that common, they are special – despite looking rather unrefined/ugly – because of their lack of numbers in Namibia! They prefer anthropogenic (whatever that might mean) habitats.
To the starling populations’ further detriment, two starling species have been introduced to Namibia from Asia (sounds familiar) and Europe. The Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) and the Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) are the culprits. I wonder why they are both called common; even worse, the Common Starling is called vulgaris by the scientists! (This time they got it right). Luckily both are still not resident in Namibia except in the Orange River delta in the south, so if you are hard up to see this alien just go south, and keep going.
Two of the other starlings which are different and also common as far as numbers and distribution are concerned are the long-tailed starlings, Meves (Lamprotornis mevesii) and Burchell’s (Lamprotornis australis). The other long-tail (special) is the Sharp-tailed Starling (Lamprotornis acuticaudis). To differentiate between them, do not look much further than their distributions. The Burchell’s Starling occurs to the south of the Kavango and Zambezi regions while Meves occurs in those areas and the odd one in the Kunene Region. One of the few, if any, special starlings (limited in distribution and numbers) is the Sharp-tailed Starling which occurs in a very limited area in Khaudum National Park. Another of the various good reasons to visit this park.
Two of the “glossy blue” starlings which are not that difficult to identify (see next paragraph) are the Red-winged (Onychognathus morio) and Pale-winged Starling (Onychognathus nabouroup). The Pale-winged Starling occurs in the western part of the country while the Red-winged Starling is included because of the nice picture I took of it in South Africa.
Now for the cherry on the cake, or maybe the icing on top of the cherry, for the serious bird-watcher. These are the undifferentiable glossies (Lamprotornis means glossy). Luckily only two appear in Namibia (compare to RSA where there are four), so we can skip the other two. The Cape (Lamprotornis nitens), probably the most common (Stormer?), and the Greater Blue-eared Starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus). Apparently, the difference is that the Cape Starling lacks the dark ear coverts and has a uniform blue colour, while the Greater Blue-eared Starling, apart from the black ear coverts, has a violet belly and flanks. If you really want to be difficult you can add the Miombo Blue-eared Starling although it might have – maybe, probably and unlikely – been found in the eastern tip of the Zambezi Region but that will just complicate my identikit system.
The diet of all the starlings, according to dieticians in the world of ornithology, is either fruit and insects or insects and fruit. As one would expect, none of them are song and dance birds. But whether common, kitsch, vulgar, Stormer, alien robust or from Australia (somehow all of these do dovetail together), be kind to these birds, you might even stop and take a closer look to decide if it is a Greater Blue-eared or a Cape Starling or an Angolan Cave Chat.
This article was published in the Winter 2018 edition of Travel News Namibia.