Chestnut-cheeked Starling breeding record in 2024 – Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve

Lee Su-Young, Yeoncheon Birds Korea, June 2024

Chestnut-cheeked Starling Agropsar philippensis 쇠찌르레기 is “a rare passing bird species in South Korea except for flocks sometimes observed in Jeju Island and some areas along the southern coast”(source: e-Bird), which, “breeds in city areas or woods near houses, ……hatches 8-11 days after laying eggs, and fledges 13∼14 days after hatching”(source: Naver Encyclopedia – Doopedia). Assessed as Least Concern under the IUCN classification of conservation status, the global population is assumed to be stable.

The global range map (source: e-Bird). The purple dots show where birders recorded the species. The map shows the locations are limited to some parts of Southeast Asia and East Asia. The main breeding range is northern Japan.

The Korean range map(source: e-Bird). It shows this passage migrant is generally observed in coastal areas.

The Chestnut-cheeked Starling is a difficult species to see in Korea, and there are very few breeding records. Therefore, the record of a breeding pair in Yeoncheon Imjin River Biosphere Reserve from April to June 2024 is important to document for the ornithological record.

A male Chestnut-cheeked Starling was first seen on June 22, 2021, and a pair was observed between May 1 and June 14, 2022 but no evidence of breeding was found. A pair and an additional female, i.e., three individuals in total, were seen from April 24 to June 17, 2024 in the same area of Seongok-ri, Gunnam-myeon. This year the pair bred in a hole at the top of a utility pole, with the adults repeatedly seen carrying food to the nest confirming that young had hatched.

During three years of observation, I was able to see and hear them without much effort as they used my garden very frequently and stayed nearby. Their calls are distinctive, so once you know them, then it is quite easy to identify them.

Year 2021
June221 maleSat at the top of a mulberry tree in my garden before flying off to a powerline about 60 m away.Only one record in 2021.
Year 2022
May  11 pairGroomed themselves on the mulberry tree after bath.Always looked like they loved each other so much!
51 pairGroomed themselves on the mulberry tree after bath.
211 pairEnjoyed bathing in a small stream and feeding nearby.
June111 pairTo my eye, the male complained to the female and the female was unhappy about it.
141 pairGroomed themselves on a powerline.The last record in 2022.
Year 2024
April241 femaleCalled on a powerline above my garden.The mulberry tree had few branches after intensive trimming.
251 pairCalled on a powerline above my garden.After this, a pair and an additional female, i.e., three individuals, were frequently seen feeding together in my garden, flying off together, and sitting together on a powerline.
May31 pair and 1 femaleSat on a high powerline side by side, with a female a slightly distant from the pair.It felt like a female of the pair watched the other female but they didn’t seem hostile to each other.
41 pairFed actively in my garden. The male picked up a dried long grass blade and flew up into a jujube tree.The pair or three in total constantly fed together in my garden from morning to evening. In particular, a female(s) helped themselves for a rather long time while the male was on the guard on a powerline.
81 pairSeemed to have already decided where to nest.
101 pair and 1 femaleThe pair peeped into the hole and guarded at the entrance.
111 pair and 1 femaleFed in my garden from early morning. The pair went in and out of the hole, guarded the entrance and stayed nearby all day long.
201 pair and 1 femaleFed actively in my garden. The male picked up a bunch of dried leaves (mostly dried bamboo leaves in a pot) from the garden and flew up on a powerline.After this, they didn’t use my garden again.
281 pairTook turns to get into and out of the hole, and then flew off towards Gunnam Dam baseball field area.After this, the pair or sometimes three were frequently seen flying off  together towards the baseball field area. Needless to say, they sometimes took another direction.
June31 pairSat near the hole before one of them was seen  carrying food into the hole though the camera didn’t work well.
71 pairTook turns to get into the hole with flying insects in their bills and out of the hole.The flying insects they were carrying to the nest were big.
101 pairTook turns to get into the hole with flying insects in their bills and out of the hole. The male went into the hole with food and carried a dropping out.
141 pairTook turns to go into the hole with a bunch of flying insects in their bills. The female got into the hole with food and out of the hole with a dropping.
161 maleSat on another low powerline with food in his bill, looking at trees at the foot of a hill.The starling family has not been seen since. Over-1-hour’s observation revealed the hole was empty. It was assumed that they fledged in the morning.   
171 femalePeeped into the hole and flew off towards the baseball field area early in the morning.She was assumed to the unpaired female and has not been seen since.

When reviewing three years’ records, there is a possibility that Chestnut-cheeked Starling (s) stayed for some time in 2021 but I couldn’t identify them because I was just a beginning birder and didn’t have a good camera at that time.

I got the impression that Chestnut-cheeked Starlings don’t seem too shy. They tend to stay longer on a powerline or a branch. They would concentrate on feeding themselves in the grass field without flushing off when a car often passed by.

But when a human being came closer, they generally flushed off the ground. When a female(s) fed in my garden, the male was usually on the guard on a powerline. If something came up, he called loudly. They were wary of a cat more than of a car or a human being. When the male saw a cat even at a long distance, he called sharply to make a female(s) to fly up to a tree or to go back together to the nest.

I could take a closer look at them this year. That’s because they usually fed in my garden. The unpaired female alone, or the pair, or all of three together fed themselves in my garden. There is one thing to note: during almost one month from April 24 and 25, my garden was their favorite table from morning to evening. But they never came back to this table after May 21. Instead, I saw them go back and forth from the nest to another places.

I assume that they began sitting on eggs around then. In my garden, a female(s) usually fed for a relatively long time. But the male was just on the guard on a powerline. That made me wonder “When does he feed himself?” He fed just for a shorter time than a female did.

I realized one thing much later: in my garden, a female(s???) ate mostly land snails whose shell diameter is 1 cm or so. My garden doesn’t look like a vegetable garden or like a flower garden. No crops or magnificent flowers grow in this small area. Instead, I don’t grow target crops, and just let the native plants grow and bloom. We have not used chemicals in the garden for the past 6 years and the garden now supports many worms and snails. 

I assume that the female Chestnut-cheeked Starling needed to get quality protein (and minerals?) before laying eggs, so she fed voraciously on the many snails in my garden. That might be why one of the female(s) fed much more actively than the male. Also, this might be what they never returned to my garden once they were incubating eggs or when feeding chicks, during which time they flew towards big trees or woodland to catch flying insects.

There is one more observation I would like to add. When they began to fly off from a powerline to a feeding area, or vice versa, the female usually started first and the male followed immediately after her, like her bodyguard. Repeatedly I saw them do this. At least to a human observer’s eye, the male’s care for the female was very special.

It is certain that the pair of Chestnut-cheeked Starlings bred successfully this summer. But I could not understand why all of them disappeared immediately after they fledged. Dr. Nial Moores let me know starlings tend to move away from breeding areas really quickly. Following his advice, I tried to find them in the nearby Imjin River area but failed. I have not seen or heard them since.

Finally, I share a few photos as proof. As a reminder, Birds Korea has a guideline not to take photos of or not to share images of eggs or chicks in a nest. This is because photographing a nest gives much stress to the birds and often results in giving up the nest or breeding failure. The place the pair nested this year is a hole at the top of a utility pole near houses in the foot of a hill. It was about 150 meters away from the observation point. I used a Nikon P1000 camera with a zoom lens.

April 29. The pair and a female. Three of them often got along together. © Lee Su-young

May 8. The pair seemed to have decided where to nest. © Lee Su-young
June 7. The male above and the female below. The pair carried a bunch of rather big flying insects with their bills. © Lee Su-young

June 10. The proud father went into the hole with food and came out with a dropping. © Lee Su-young

June 17. The likely unpaired female peeped into the hole early in the morning and flew away. I have not seen or heard them since © Lee Su-young

[Additional Note: Park Jin Young’s doctoral thesis written in 2002 traces a handful of mid-summer records in the Seoul area, and reports that breeding in the ROK was first confirmed in 1989 (in Hwagak-dong, Seoul). More recently (in 2015), 3-4 pairs were found nesting in Suncheon by Birds Korean Matt Poll. There are no known breeding records in the DPRK)].

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