Saturday, October 23, 2010

Starlings, with their stars on

As fall progresses, riding my bike around town, I have been hearing the thin chitterings of starlings perched on wires and branches overhead. Are there more starlings in the fall and winter or are they just more noticeable because of the absence or silence of the other birds? (I wonder the same thing about blue jays, too.) Apparently starling song is quite euphonious. I read in a book called "Bird Song" that Mozart had a pet starling and its warblings inspired some of his melodies. He was quite fond of the bird and made his friends attend its funeral when it passed. Like parrots, they can also mimic human speech; some really cool examples of talking starlings can be found on YouTube.

If I could go back in time and see the mid-West with the French explorers (this is actually a long-standing wish, to be able to experience history and also see the landscape when it was still wild--and full of passenger pigeons--where is Doctor Who and his Tardis when you need him?) I wouldn't find any starlings. One hundred of them were released in Central Park in 1890 and 1891, and they quickly spread across the land, becoming one of the most abundant species, with around 200 million of them alive today.

Lots of people hate starlings. The conservation-minded dislike them because they are not native to North America and compete for nesting sites with native species. In fact, my Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior has a drawing of starlings evicting red-headed woodpeckers from their nest cavity. Other people just consider them to be pests because they are so numerous and seemingly enjoy living alongside humans in our cities and towns.

Personally, I have never found a bird I couldn't admire, so I see many good qualities in starlings. I like their winter plumage especially, when their iridescent purply black plumage fades a little, revealing their "stars"--silvery speckles in their feathers. And I love the way they form mesmerizing flocks of hundreds or even thousands flying together in the evening, weaving around each other as if trying to braid the air. There are lots of examples of this phenomenon on YouTube as well, one of the best being this video.

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