Thursday, 8 August 2013

Mystery of the Orange Headed Starling!

If you had read yesteray's post, you would have seen a photo of a young Starling with a orange head and as I said then, it probably was caused by pollen.  Since yesteray I have managed to learn a lot more about how this came about.  I am putting my original photo on again so that those reading it will know what I am referring to especially if you have not read my post yesteday. (shame on you!)

This young Starling above was photgraphed by me at
Groomsport, County Down.
Over the past few weeks BirdWatch Ireland HQ has been receiving lots of phone calls and emails about strange birds with bright orange heads that have been visiting gardens around Ireland.  They tend to flock with Starlings and House Sparrows and can be quite numerous in some areas, though they can’t be found in any field guides.
Rather than being some exotic new visitor, these in fact ARE Starlings and House Sparrows that have been feeding on a plant called New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax).  Though native to New Zealand, this species has been planted commonly in gardens around the country and has even become naturalised in the wild in many areas.  Its high antler-like flower-stalks which grow out from the centre of a fan of long, narrow leaves are highly distinctive and will be familiar to many people. 

Above is the head of an New Zealand Flax plant.  We are used to plants being pollinated by insects and even by the wind, but New Zealand Flax uses another method: it is pollinated by birds.  The tubular flowers produce a rich, sweet nectar that many birds find irresistible.  As they stick their beaks down into the flowers to feed, a small brush-like appendage dusts the tops of the birds’ heads with brightly coloured pollen, staining it a vivid orange or red colour.  When they move on to feed from another flax flower, these birds bring the pollen with them, helping the plant to reproduce.

 Starlings on a New Zealand plant. 
Thanks to Chris Murphy from NatureTrek & Limosa Holidays
who gave me permission to use this photo.

In New Zealand the main pollinator is a unique native bird called the Tui Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae (see below), which has even evolved a beak with exactly the same curvature as the flax flower to allow it to feed more easily.  We don’t have any Tuis in Ireland, so the plants have to make do with the Irish birds, mainly Starlings and House Sparrows, that have learned that flax nectar is a good source of food.  The staining on the bird’s crown feathers is only temporary and doesn’t cause them any discomfort or harm: they are probably completely unaware of how odd they look to our eyes. 
File:Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae -Waikawa, Marlborough, New Zealand-8 (2).jpg
It is not at all surprising that people think they have seen a new species of bird, as the addition of such a vivid splash of colour to otherwise rather drab and muted species really catches the eye and stands out as something unusual.  It will be interesting to see whether this feeding behaviour spreads to other bird species and whether it aids the spread of this invasive plant species in Ireland.
I hope you enjoyed the up date from yesterday's post. 
Thank you for visiting today.
MANY THANKS TOO ALL who left comments on any of my blogs yesterday.


  1. Very interesting and wonderful captures!

  2. How interesting! The starling looks quite exotic with the red hat. I love the tuli in the last shot.

  3. It amazes me the things that pollen can stain - my wife loves lilies and we often get them as cut flowers - but we also cut out the stamens to stop the pollen from staining everything they touch!

    Cheers - Stewart M

  4. I've seen this before- they look amazing don't they?

  5. Fascinating explanation! Pollen can stain, that's for sure.

  6. Well, that's a mystery solved. That New Zealand bird is gorgeous.

  7. Some great photos - fascinating to read about the starling and see the photos. Have read about birds getting pollen markings before but never seen any around here. Great post :)

  8. Hi! Nice captures. It's very interesting that starlings would carry pollens. The last photo is breathtaking beautiful.

  9. that is just COOL! thanks for adding more detail for us!

  10. oh how cool....awesome images!!

  11. Hi Margaret,
    Great photos of these beautiful birds.
    Last picture is sublime.

    Greetings Irma

  12. You guessed it! And you knew it all along, bravo! The bird's beak evolving to match the flower is incredible, I wounder ho long it has been taking to evolve that...

  13. Isn't nature amazing! I love the NZ Flax's colour and the Tuli is a gorgeous bird, CM's shot is totally awesome. Your research paid off-you are quite amazing!

  14. How amazing! I'll keep an eye out.....

  15. They have cross bred with the pollen, interesting?

  16. Thank you for solving that mystery Margaret. I haven't heard of this plant in England yet but if I see any orange headed birds i'll now know what's happening.

  17. Gorgeous Tuli . . . my first time seeing one . . .