Whistle. Pop. Whirrrr. Zzzt. Repeat. Many, many, many times.
That’s the song, if you want to call it that, of the European starling. Two of these relatively drab, chunky little birds are now my next-door neighbors—the pair moved into a hole in the maple tree in front of my house. Whistle. Pop. Whirrrr. Zzzt. Repeat. Incessantly. They fly into the hole. They fly out of the hole. They dig away at the tree’s innards and fling the detritus onto the sidewalk below with their little yellow beaks. I might be grateful if I could count on the birds to toss sawdust onto freshly fallen snow so that pedestrians got a firmer footing. But it’s already spring; the birds are just digging a deeper hole for themselves.
Like an asteroid put on a collision course with the earth millions of years ago, the starlings invaded my territory because of events set in motion in the distant past. About a decade ago the top of the main trunk of the maple became diseased and saw the business end of a chainsaw. That left a dead top, the kind that cavity-nesting birds love to excavate to build their little homes. Only about 20 feet from the front door of my little home in the Bronx. Zzzt.
The other starting point lies much deeper in the mists of time. In the late 1590s Shakespeare noted the mimicking ability of the starling while writing Henry IV, Part 1. Hotspur is contemplating driving King Henry nuts by having a starling repeat the name of Hotspur’s brother-in-law Mortimer, whom Henry refuses to ransom out of prisoner status. “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ ” Hotspur whines. (In theater and life, in-laws can often be counted on for dramatic conflict.) Whirrrr.
We move on to the late 19th century, when a group called the American Acclimatization Society was reportedly working on their pre-environmental-impact-statement project to introduce to the U.S. every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s scripts. Clearly, the Bard abided birds—his works include references to more than 600 avian species. A Bronx resident, drug manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin (a street bearing his name isn’t far from my house) seems to be particularly responsible for the starlings’ arrival here. Well, his chickens have come home to roost. Pop. (The society also brought the house sparrow to our shores, a pair of which nest in a vent on the front of my other, human, next-door neighbor’s house.)
The Acclimatization Society released some hundred starlings in New York City’s Central Park in 1890 and 1891. By 1950 starlings could be found coast to coast, north past Hudson Bay and south into Mexico. Their North American numbers today top 200 million. As bird-watcher Jeffrey Rosen put it in a 2007 New York Times article, “It isn’t their fault that they treated an open continent much as we ourselves did.” Zzzt.
So why are starlings so little loved? Their looks don’t help: short, stocky and dark with light speckles, they look like chocolate that’s been left out for a few days. And have I mentioned their obnoxious series of sounds, er, song? Another strike against them is their competition with native birds that also make nests in handy cavities. Starlings have thereby been oft indicted as a major reason for the decline of the strikingly beautiful eastern bluebird, state bird of New York and Missouri. (The state bird of Missouri is not the cardinal?)
But perhaps starlings aren’t so bad. When the sun hits their feathers just right, they do have a certain iridescent attractiveness. And they have fascinating jaws. That’s right, jaws. Most of the world’s starlings have conventional jaws that close firmly. But our imported starlings’ jaws are wired completely differently—their musculature enables the beak to strongly open. According to The Birder’s Handbook, “the closed bill is inserted between blades of grass in thick turf or other cover, and then sprung open to expose hidden prey.” Which get to observe the unusual musculature of the jaw from the inside. Pop.
And starlings actually appear to be innocent in the case of the missing bluebirds. The feather friends at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology contend on their Web site that “a study in 2003 found few actual effects on populations of 27 native species. Only sapsuckers showed declines because of starlings, and other species appeared to be holding their own against the invaders.” So when it comes to songbird decline, as Shakespeare almost said, maybe the fault is not in our starlings but in ourselves. Zzzt.
This articled was originally printed with the title, "Call of the Reviled".