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If Starlings Could Speak

Bill Meredith

"Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer."

Walmart is the company we love to hate. My wife grumbles about the way it has forced small, locally owned shops out of business, but she can't resist a bargain, and regularly shops there for marked-down items. I grumble about megastores that sell people things they don't need, but I know it is more important to keep peace in the marriage than to stand up for a principle, so when she brings home "bargains" I try to keep my complaints within survivable limits. As I grow older, the lack of logic on both our parts bothers me less than it used to.

This is the reason I found myself out in the yard planting flower bulbs one day in mid-January. Now, anyone who knows the first thing about bulbs knows they should be planted in the fall before the ground freezes, so they can get their roots established before the spring growth spurt. Walmart, on the other hand, knows that most people who buy bulbs don't know the first thing about them and will buy them any time the price is marked down. So they overstock in the fall, and anything that wasn't sold when it should have been planted is put on sale later.

With all that on my mind, it is easy to see why I was not fully engaged in the business of getting crocuses into the ground at the proper depth and exposure; my hands were digging obediently, but my ears didn't have their heart in it. So when a flock of starlings flew over and perched in the sycamore tree next door, I stopped to look at them. And, naturally, my mind wandered off to Eugene Schieffelin.

Schieffelin was a theater afficianado who lived in New York in 1890, and he thought it would be nice if he could walk through Central Park and see all of the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. He scoured the entire canon, and found just one mention of starlings (I found the quotation on the internet, but was not able to find who said it, why Mortimer was involved, or what play it was in). Apparently one mention was enough; he imported 60 starlings from England and turned them loose in the Park, and the rest is history.

Starlings are ugly, misshapen, ungraceful birds, and to make it worse they can't carry a tune. In Europe, their primary calling seems to be as gang thugs. Since their introduction in 1890 they have multiplied to the point that they are one of our most numerous species; estimates of their population range as high as 200 million. Of course that many birds consume huge quantities of insects, but they also have a serious economic impact by pillaging grain crops. And worse, they have crowded out many native birds, especially bluebirds and red-headed woodpeckers, because they like to nest in tree holes. In fall and winter, they are a major nuisance in towns and cities, where they roost by the thousands and cover trees and sidewalks with droppings.

Normally I don't give starlings a second glance, but that day I was looking for reasons to be distracted and I was surprised by the size of the flock. Perhaps 100 of them lit in the tree at first, but they were quickly joined by a bigger group, and then more and more kept coming until the tree was black with them. They would have outnumbered the leaves, if leaves had been there; there must have a several thousands of them, and the limbs were bent by their weight. They were fascinating to watch despite their ugliness. Although they are gregarious by nature and always travel in flocks, they really don't like each other, and when they perch on a limb they maintain a measured distance between each other that is just beyond how far they can reach to peck.

The flock continued to grow for several minutes, and suddenly they all took flight with a grand clamor of squawks and beating wings. They flew in a tight formation, keeping as close together as their personal spaces allowed, wheeling and turning in unison in response to some signal known only to them, so that the whole flock looked like a swirling black cloud. Suddenly the cloud split into two equal parts; each half flew off in its own direction, leaving behind a half-dozen stragglers who missed the signal.

The ones left behind panicked as obviously as if they had been human. They forgot about maintaining personal space, and almost ran into each other; then they darted off, zigzagging madly, and finally wheeled back to the sycamore tree. There they snuggled in close to the trunk and actually seemed to hunch down and try to disappear.

I knew what had happened. One of the original flock had spotted a predator, possibly the Cooper's Hawk that has been around all winter, and they all took flight to form a defensive formation. In this pattern the flock flies as a tight bunch, with each individual trying to work itself into the center where it would be safest. This activity increases the chance for survival because no one bird is on the outside very long, and it is harder for the hawk to single out an individual to attack. This is why, when the big flock split, the few who missed the signal were so upset. Flying alone, they were vulnerable, and they knew it.

The whole episode lasted only a minute or so, but it provided insight. If you're a bird, Attention Deficit Disorder is a disadvantage in natural selection; if you miss a signal, you are likely to be eaten. And in a more anthropomorphic sense, if starlings talk, before they leave the nest they will be required to memorize the Starling's Prayer: "Lord, please don't ever let me fly alone." Come to think of it, that's not a bad sentiment for all of us.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith