Alone, looking over the salt marsh at dawn, this is what I call retirement. The rising sun to my back, the scattered, faint, gray clouds are turning white, then orange and pink, from top to bottom and right to left, the gray sky going to blue behind them, a tide of Technicolor invading the sky of black and white.
The changes make me think of another invader. In all of America, they don’t seem to have invaded as far as to here, a Carolina barrier island — yet. I’m talking about neither coronavirus nor door-to-door religious proselytizers; they are surely both already here. The plague, whose absence I hope to enjoy for a week, is the omnivorous, gregarious, ubiquitous starling. Call me the Stephen Miller of starling immigration. I don’t care.
We are admonished to love all of God’s creatures, but I think maybe that means love them when they are where they are supposed to be. The Almighty did not put starlings in America. Eugene Schieffelin did.
The American Acclimatization Society, the aforesaid gentleman president, introduced many European floral and faunal elements to our continent in true White Man’s Burden fashion, making all the world into Mother Europe. Among the gifts bestowed was all the birds of Shakespeare introduced into New York’s Central Park. Starlings, Henry the IV, Part 1.
The area occupied by the descendants of those 80 birds from 1890, with a group of 60 reinforcements in 1891, can be seen in range maps from progressive years, spreading, spreading over all of America by the 1940s. The starling population is estimated to have reached 200 million in 1970, before participating in the general decline of bird populations since then. On maps, the range of permanent residents is customarily shown in purple. Not quite, but close to the color of The Blob. How appropriate.
Seems that when there is a German word for something but no English equivalent, it’s always something unpleasant. Such as schadenfreude or Lebensraum. Here, it’s zirkein, one reason for the starling’s global success.
It consists of stabbing the beaks into soft material, such as soil, then opening the beak to expose buried prey. To this end, their muscles of beak opening are enlarged and the head is narrowed to move the eyes forward so they can look down the beak.
A contributor to success that also gives them the look of narrow-eyed, narrow-minded people who look down their noses at you. Furthermore, like all ground birds, they walk rather than hop and stand as tall as they can to survey their surroundings. It doesn’t help their resemblance to unpleasant, supercilious people as they strut, erect and glaring yellow-beaked animosity. It is also easy to remember their kinship to T-Rex. As does the look in their eyes “if I were a little bigger and you a little smaller…”
Recent research now also shows keys to success in their genome. Hereditary changes in the blood of that other very invasive species, humans, have occurred in Tibetans to help survival in high altitudes. Changes in 3,000 years that we used to think took millions of years. Changes in starlings’ genes to help them survive in the many, very different, habitats of America have happened in only the 130 years they have been over here from England. If you think new findings like these don’t shake up the world of science, think again.
So prominent that they were described by Linnaeus himself in his first pass at classification of living things in 1758, the common starling is common indeed from Western Europe to Mongolia. The Indo-European roots word for them has been present since the second millennium BCE.
In addition to here, introduced birds are doing well, among many other places, in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa and Fiji, thank you very much. Their larger group of relatives, including myna birds, is just everywhere. Every continent except Antarctica. Except here. Until lately.
Starlings are a plague in many ways, such as threatening bluebirds and other cavity nesters with their mob behavior competing for nest sites. Ironically, it’s their nearest native relatives, the North American mimics, catbird, mockingbird and brown thrasher, who duke it out with them at the feeder.
Despite the demonstrations of admirable American individualism and personal responsibility by our valiant native birds, the mob behavior of the starlings eventually carries the day. A block of suet will disappear down their gabbling maws in 20 minutes. They jump, twitter and shriek, fighting among themselves in a most unseemly fashion. Since we can’t make them leave, I wish someone would at least teach them some manners. Borat behaves better.