Crazy-eyed party starlings

14 02 2018

Despite being in count-down mode for a UK trip, I treated mysScreenshot 2018-02-13 20.03.01elf to the Integrative Biology seminar this week. It looked like a nice behavioural talk, plus it’s always good catching up with interesting people like Andrew McAdam and Amy Newman (who’s incidentally just agreed to be Miranda‘s MSc examiner).

The presenter was Dr. Sarah Guindre-Parker (Columbia/UoG), and her talk on African starlings was terrific, though I probably didn’t get from it the main message she wanted (that allo-parental care is just a mildly beneficial side effect of group-living, and that it’s group-living that really boosts survival especially in some environmental conditions).


I was more mesmerised by the species itself. Both sexes have dazzling (and seemingly identical) plumage, with wild white eyes: already pretty strange. They can live for 12 years or more, and which birds alloparent in any given season, and which chicks they help care for, seems to have no rhyme or reason.  Furthermore, in any one breeding season, about half the animals just don’t bother (for reasons no-one knows): a sizeable chunk of the population, even though they could reproduce or help, just eschews all things baby altogether. Then those that do perform parental duties are pretty lackadaisical: they only make a couple of provisioning trips an hour (very slow compared to other species), and some of these they just fake – taking food to the infants and then taking it away again. Totally hilarious.