The European starling is one of the most common nuisance birds in the United States. Introduced to the U.S. in 1891, the 50 original pairs have ballooned into a national population estimated at 200 million.
Starlings have a black, speckled coloration and a very short tail. They prefer urban or suburban habitats where man-made structures give them ample nesting and roosting sites. They are mainly insectivorous, but will also feed on small fruits, such as cherries and grapes, as well as apples, which they peck holes in and hollow out. They are among the worst nuisance species in North America, disrupting native birds, destroying fruit, interfering with air travel and roosting on city blocks
Starlings carry a host of diseases, many transferable to livestock, but several that can infect humans. Five bacterial diseases, two fungal diseases, four protozoan diseases, and six viral diseases may potentially be transmitted to humans and other animals by starlings (see this article from Utah State University). This post will examine some of the potential health risks associated with starlings.
Starling droppings, like those of many other, may contain histoplasmosis fungus. Histoplasmosis is a disease affecting the lungs that can be fatal if left untreated. It is usually contracted when humans inhale the spores of the fungus, which become airborne if the droppings are disturbed (check out the CDC’s webpage on histoplasmosis for more information).
Starlings are also capable of transmitting cryptococcosis to humans. Cryptococcosis is caused by yeast found in the intestinal tract of pigeons and starlings that passes into their droppings and is contracted similarly to histoplasmosis. The illness often begins as a pulmonary disease and may later affect the central nervous system. Since attics, cupolas, ledges, schools, offices, warehouses, mills, barns, park buildings, signs, etc. are typical roosting and nesting sites, the fungus is apt to found in these areas.
In addition to this, starlings are capable of passing E. coli and Salmonella to humans indirectly through contamination of livestock. Rural starlings frequent livestock feedlots, where they tend to roost on fences or ledges above feeding areas. Their droppings, which carry the two bacteria, get into the cattle feed and water and consequently infect the livestock. Starlings recently tested in Kansas were found to carry E. coli; other tests have found both Salmonella and paratuberculosis (Johne’s Disease) in starlings as well, so they are a real threat to livestock, and indirectly, to human beings.
Another disease carried by starlings is transmissible gastroenteritis virus (TGE), which infects swine by means of starling droppings. TGE can be treated, but it is very dangerous in piglets – an almost 100% mortality within 2 to 3 days in piglets under 7 days old (see here for more on pigs and TGE).
Starlings are very unhealthy birds who carry a tremendous amount of diseases. Their droppings are very dangerous and should not be moved or handled without the proper personal protective equipment. If starlings are roosting near your home or business, it is prudent to remove them and have their feces professionally cleaned as soon as possible.
Starlings and their diseases are nothing to fool around with. For more information on nuisance birds, or if you are dealing with an unwanted bird in your home or property, please visit Creature Control’s bird page here for more information.