Monday, February 11, 2008

The Starlings Come For Breakfast


It was just before nine this morning. I'll admit, I've been sleeping in just a little lately. I suppose moderation of the late nights with the internet might re-balance all of that...but anyway...

I could hear, as I swam up into consciousness, the television in the next room, Emily watching Regis and Kelly. And there was something else, some noise outside.

At the kitchen window I poured coffee and discovered out the window the source of the noise: birds! Lots of birds, swarming everywhere!


They were...not birds I was familiar with, none I had identified previously. Well, there was one sort of confused looking robin perched on a branch amongst them.

About that time I was suddenly awake enough to dash for the camera, and they all flew from their perches in the apple tree and elsewhere on the hillside. (The robin I didn't spot again, so perhaps he was just a sleepy misidentification of one of the masses.)

I found them swarming over the front yard, digging, pecking, teasing worms and grubs out of the frozen ground. (The temperature this morning, BTW, was 13 degrees.)



Generally, it was a pretty exciting scene, as the cat and I bounded from one window to the next to capture their antics, which were part gremlin, and part locust, and overall, pretty Hitchcock-ian.






Eventually, as the day progressed, I identified them as starlings and guessed the number of this merry band as about fifty.

I tip my hat to Wikipedia, for bringing me up to speed on the European Starling(Sturnus vulgaris). Some other interesting information (including approved methods of killing them!) may be found here. These birds are not native to North America, but were apparently introduced in the early 1890s (about 100 of them) into Central Park. Their numbers today are estimated to be close to 200 million.

Their benefactor was a wealthy drug manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin, who is storied to have released them in an attempt to introduce New Yorkers to every bird mentioned in Shakespeare's works. This story is widely reputed.

History, by way of his Wikipedia entry, is not kind to Schieffelin for his introduction of one of North America's first and most-successful invasive species. Starlings, as it happens, are known for crowding native species out of their nests, roosts, boxes and food supplies, as was quite evident this morning.



Still, they must have something going for them to have caught Will Shakespeare's attention. It turns out the starling's speech patterns incorporate other sounds from their environments, such as car alarms or sirens or human speech.

And that's where they proved useful to Will, in Henry IV, part one, when Hotspur declares,

"The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I'll holler 'Mortimer!' Nay I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion."



All the while chattering (Shakespeare, for all I could hear from inside...), they scoured every bit of seed off the ground, did fierce battle over the suet feeders, reducing their contents to crumbs...and then, at some unheard signal, they all took wing.

A black swirling spiraling cloud, they made their way off toward some other unsuspecting yard, like a living tornado. And they didn't even say "thanks".

The starlings: bad guests. We won't be inviting them back.

2 comments:

somewhere joe said...

I love that story about all the birds in Shakespeare, and have written about it myself. Do you know Randy Stonehill's song about starlings...

Riding with my family in a '58 Buick
I can still recall
How we'd drive through the valley
To my Grandmother's house
Every summer vacation, when I was small
And I'd gaze out the window
At the farms and the orchards
And the sound of our motor
Would frighten the starlings
And they'd rise from the fields to fly

My mother would grumble
"Those birds are a curse
They're a thorn in the farmers" side
But I couldn't help feeling sad and inspired
By their desperate ballet in the sky


Say a prayer for the starlings
A hot, dry wind beats their ragged wings
Have a thought for the starlings
No one ever listens to the songs they sing
Say a prayer for the starlings
There's no welcome for them anywhere
Leave some crumbs for the starlings
They say that Winter will be cold this year

She was sitting on a curb by the Seven Eleven�
She asked if I had some spare change
Her skin wore that leathered and wind-burned look
And the light in her blue eyes was wild and strange
I sat down beside her and asked her her name
She said, "pick one you like, I need something to eat"
And her life made me think
Of the dead leaves in Autumn
Drifting like ghosts down the street

Is the life that we celebrate only a dream
A lie that we serve like a God made of stone
And our hearts are the hunter
Birds with no nesting place
Weary and aching for home

Say a prayer for the starlings
A hot, dry wind beats their ragged wings
Have a thought for the starlings
No one ever listens to the songs they sing
Say a prayer for the starlings
There's no welcome for them anywhere
Leave some crumbs for the starlings
They say that Winter will be cold this year

Greg said...

Hey Joe. Thanks for adding a new level to the post...I wasn't familiar with Randy Stonehill's music, and my internet search has me enjoying what I can find of his stuff.

Sorry to say I can't find the starling song, since the lyrics are so lovely. Despite their marauding nature, I do feel for the starlings. They, after all, didn't ask to be introduced to a place where they would dominate so.

Considering that, I don't really mind that they ate up all the seeds and suet...and frankly, they can come back and pick grubs from the lawn any time they like...