The Spectacular African ‘Amethyst’ Starling Looks Like a Living Gemstone With Wings

September 2, 2020 Updated: September 19, 2020

American birdwatchers may know the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) as a decent-looking bird at best, with its glossy metallic plumage, but they might never have imagined just how utterly spectacular one of its African cousins is.

The violet-backed starling (Cinnyricinclus leucogaster), also known as the amethyst or plum-colored starling, looks and lives worlds away from its Euro-American counterpart. Dwelling in the woodlands and savannas of Sub-Saharan Africa, this unique bird does resemble the purple gemstone after which it is named.

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Violet-backed starling male at Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa (Derek Keats/CC BY 2.0)
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(PACO COMO/Shutterstock)

The violet-backed starling is the only member of its genus Cinnyricinclus even though it belongs to the larger starling family. The bird is sexually dimorphic, and its gorgeous color, described as plum, violet, or amethyst, only occurs in male members.

Females have a fairly dull brown color pattern not dissimilar to thrushes. The name Cinnyricinclus is translated as a combination of “sunbird” and “thrush.”

The male’s iridescent feathers completely cover the head, back, and sides. And this bright violet is spectacularly set off by its snow-white belly and stark black tail feathers.

Like all the members of the family sturnidae, the violet-backed starling is omnivorous and feeds on a wide range of fruits and berries, as well as insects. The bird prefers to be up in the trees and rarely lands on the ground for long.

Its favorite banquets are termite swarms, according to Sabi Sabi Lodge near South Africa’s Kruger National Park. One trait they share with other starlings is the ability to raid other birds’ nests for eggs and hatchlings to add to their diet.

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Female violet-backed starling in Damaraland, Namibia (Charles J Sharp/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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Violet-backed starling in Damaraland, Namibia (Charles J Sharp/CC BY-SA 4.0)

While these birds usually rove around in sex-specific flocks, in the spring they break into mating pairs. Violet-backed starlings are monogamous, and mates remain together for their whole lives. When it comes to nesting, they prefer the safety of holes in trees or fence posts, though they sometimes make use of holes in riverbanks.

Only the female will take the job of sitting on the 2–4 blue-colored eggs laid in the nest, though the males will help out by bringing food to the fledgling birds.

For being such a small bird, with adult males measuring lengths of 18 centimeters, the violet-backed starling has a wide migratory range. During winters, they travel north, toward the equator; they are found as far west as Senegal and as far east as Tanzania. In spring, they return to southern Africa.

While their population is decreasing, according to the IUCN, these colorful starlings share a healthy habit of breeding with their more common cousins. They are listed as a species of “Least Concern,” meaning that there’s little possibility they will be disappearing any time soon.

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