Friday, August 30, 2013

Sleeping with the Enemy

Okay, I know.  European starlings, as a species, are much maligned, at least by Americans.  Starlings were purposely introduced to the country in the late 19th century for, get this, literary reasons!  That's right, some homesick Europeans wanted to bring the bird species of none other than Shakespeare to Central Park in New York.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Turns out that European starlings took to America like, well, any species would who arrived in a place where they had no natural predators.  They flourished.  A bit too well.  Now, as the Washington Dept of Wildlife's "Living with Wildlife" Web site puts it, they are ubiquitous.  Probably ranked somewhere between pigeons in the city and gulls at the coast.  The good news is that, although they were brought here under quite false pretenses, it turns out that one of their favorite snacks is the larva of the leatherjacket or marsh crane fly, which is also a non-native (and for that very reason deserve to be eaten!).

So why do we hate the beloved bird of Shakespeare?  Why indeed.  I mean, just because they tend to crowd out other song birds, including stealing their already occupied nests for starling eggs.  Just because they are messy housekeepers and small flocks can desiccate fruit and young veggie crops.  Just because older, more established roosts are breeding grounds for diseases unkind to humans.  What's not to love?

In spite of all that I know about starlings I must confess that all that is dimmed by their voices.  I love the starling calls, described by "Birds of the Puget Sound" as a "continuous series  squeaks, squawks, including mimicry of other species."  But this limited characterization doesn't begin to do justice to the artful array of sounds of which these birds are capable.

I know this because I sleep with them.  Well, I mean, not literally.  They are more like "roommates."  You see, there's a nest of them under the eaves of our famous cupola and during the summer months, since we keep our windows open up there, we can hear everything our roomies are saying--in the early morning hours when they are getting ready for the work day and in the evening when they come home from work and are settling in.  I know it amounts to eavesdropping (I'm talking more about what I do, listening to them not what they do, making quite a mess of their room) but I can't help but smile to hear them twitter, caw, chortle, cluck, click, chatter, chuckle, tweet, and guffaw.  Sometimes we'll mute the TV so as to hear their bantering all the better.
 Listen,  I know they’re a nuisance; I know we need to get someone up there after this second batch of chicks is gone to get rid of the nest and debris but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy the free concert for a while.

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