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The red-winged starling

14 January 2016


The red-winged starling Onychognathus morio is one of 21 types of starling of the family Sturnidae which occurs in southern Africa. It was first described scientifically as Turdus morio by Linnaeus in 1766 based on a specimen from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. However, the name Turdus relates to the thrushes and the red-winged starling has since been renamed Onychognathus morio. The name Onychognathus is derived from the Greek words onyx for a nail and gnathos for a jaw and it refers to the sharp bill. The name morio is derived from the Greek word morio for black or possibly is a contraction of the Latin word mormorion for a dark brown stone which may refer to the reddish brown patches on the wings. The starlings are mostly confined to Africa, and the red-winged starling is found throughout the eastern part of Africa as far north as south-western Ethiopia.


An adult male weighs some 140 g and a female 130 g and they differ in plumage. The adult male is uniform, glossy black with an inky blue sheen. There is a reddish brown wing patch and the longish, sharp bill is black. The eyes are dark red and the legs and feet are black. The plumage of an adult female mostly resembles that of a male but her crown, nape, sides of the head, throat and upper breast are ash-grey, while her nape and breast feathers have darker central streaks. The juveniles resemble the adult males in having a matt black plumage, but the eyes and the bill are dark brown. Red-winged starlings can be confused with pale-winged starlings Onychognathus nabouroup but the latter have bright orange eyes, whitish patches on the wings and a shorter tail. Moulting occurs from November to April and often overlaps with nesting.

The red-winged starling is partial to rocky outcrops and gorges in grasslands up to 2800 m above sea level but it will visit forests in search of wild fruits to eat. It has adapted to urban areas where it does well and uses tall buildings and other structures as nesting sites. In the wild in southern Africa it is absent from the coastal plains of Mozambique and the arid western regions although it does enter the fringes of the Karoo. It is a resident bird and therefore does not migrate although local movements do happen in a radius of some 100 km around a specific area. Although still unknown, a population possibly consists of territorial breeding pairs and flocks of non-breeding birds that move around locally. A breeding pair will stay in the vicinity of its nest throughout the year. The oldest known ringed red-winged starling was 6.5 years old.

www.leopard.tvThe resident pairs roost at their nest sites throughout the year but they form large flocks that can exceed 500 birds in the dry season that roost communally in trees, on cliffs and man-made structures. Red-winged starlings are aggressive towards other types of starling and will displace them at feeding sites. They will also attack raptors and brood parasitic birds such as the cuckoos. On occasion they may also attack humans when roosting on buildings.

Foraging on the ground is done as single birds, pairs or in flocks that hop around with the feet held together, but red-winged starlings also forage in trees and will catch insects in flight. The diet mainly consists of fruit, but red-winged starlings will also eat spiders, scorpions, millipedes, locusts, termites and other insects such as ticks which they peck off animals such as cattle and wild herbivores. They also eat nectar and when they do so the pollen may colour their faces bright orange. There seems to be a regular grooming association with the klipspringer Oreotragus oreotragus in some regions. Red-winged starlings sometimes also feed on the secretions from the pre-orbital glands of mammals, and will attack and eat lizards, palm swifts Cypsiurus parvus and the nestlings of various birds. They are highly opportunistic and adaptive feeders that will also eat molluscs, freshwater crabs and carrion, and they also distribute the seeds of invasive alien plants such as rooikrans Acacia cyclops and the Persian lilac tree Melia azederach.

Monogamous pairs remain together for several years and perhaps for life. Numerous pairs may breed close to each other on cliffs in a loose colony. The territorial male uses song posts but courtship is generally initiated by the female. Mated pairs groom each other mostly on the head. The nest is built by both members of a pair and consists of a large, flat structure of sticks, grass and rootlets that are bound with mud. It contains a central cup that is lined with grass or fine material such as hair that may at times be plucked directly from the head of an animal such as a horse and even a human, and is typically built on a rock ledge, an artificial structure such as a ledge of a building or at the base of a palm frond, usually at least 2 m above the ground. A nest may be used repeatedly and it is refurbished by both sexes when required. A case is known where a specific nest was used for 35 consecutive years by red-winged starlings.

www.leopard.tvOne to five elongated, oval, slightly tapered, sky blue, medium-sized eggs with small red-brown spots are laid at a time. Incubation is mostly done by the female for 13 to 14 days and may start when the first egg has been laid or only when a clutch has been completed. The male feeds the female when she is nesting. New hatchlings are naked except for a grey-brown tuft of down on the head and down the centre of the back. The eyes only open at an age of seven or more days. The adults break up large prey on "anvil" stones before feeding their young. The nestlings remain in the nest for 22 to 28 days. The first brood is usually driven off after fledging, but a second brood may roost with the adults for five to six weeks after fledging.

The fledglings develop an immature plumage within three months of fledging and acquire an adult plumage at an age of six months. They are preyed upon by the Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus and nestlings may be preyed upon by the African harrier hawk Polyboroides typus, crows of the genus Corvus and baboons Papio hamadryas, while various species of cuckoo may parasitize the nests.



Hockey, P A R, W R J Dean and P G Ryan (Eds) 2005. Roberts – birds of southern Africa, seventh edition. Cape Town: The John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, 961 - 962.

article by Prof J du P Bothma



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