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The blackbirds are back! February 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Ah, the joys of February. Just yesterday, for the first time in two months, the mountains of snow and ice that had blanketed our friend Ben and Silence Dogood’s rural cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, had finally retreated to the point where almost all of the ground was green or brown. Two 60-degree days last week had released us from winter’s icy grip at last. Our friend Ben almost wrecked the car on Saturday when Silence suddenly started screaming—turns out she’d seen a flock of snow geese, one of our favorite birds, for the first time since fall. Spring was clearly in the air.

This morning, the ground is white again. We became aware of this at about 6:40 a.m. when a passing car skidded into the field across from our house. Soon police and tow trucks had stopped traffic, lights were flashing, and the day had kicked off to a somewhat more lively start than is usual in our sleepy rural setting. (Fortunately, neither car nor driver was injured.) We found ourselves staring out at 3 inches of fresh snow, with more big flakes drifting down.

We weren’t the only ones who’d been tricked into thinking it was spring. One look at our feeders showed us that the blackbirds were back. Grackles, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed, black-bodied cowbirds, starlings—there they all were, trying to convince themselves that they hadn’t made a huge mistake by showing up today.

We admire the bold, beautiful grackles, big, showy birds with iridescent black, purple, and green plumage. They aren’t the least bit afraid to snatch a piece of cat food from under the nose of our outdoor cat, Dixie, though they’ll also help themselves to seed from our feeders, standing their ground against any and all comers but not trying to drive them off and deprive them of their share.

We’re also fond of the red-winged blackbirds, so called not because their wings are red, but because mature males bear red-and-yellow epaulettes on their black shoulders. They can be found in our meadow garden during the growing season, helping us keep the bug population under control. We say, welcome back!

We feel considerable ambivalence about cowbirds, who evolved with the bison of the Plains and whose range was limited and controlled by bison populations and movements. Unfortunately, when pioneers exterminated the bison and started raising grain, the cowbirds’ range and population expanded exponentially. This is a problem because cowbirds are parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Species that become inadvertent hosts of cowbird eggs raise fewer if any of their own chicks. While we think cowbirds are beautiful and appreciate their original role, consuming the pests that plagued the bison and making life better for both species as a result, we’re appalled by their current status.

Starlings are even worse. It’s not that we have anything against these birds individually. Right now, before their plumage dulls to black, it’s an attractive spangled glossy brown with gold highlights. Rather, it’s the number of starlings we object to. Huge flocks cover the bare trees, screaming and shrieking. These starving masses make our squirrels look like polite diners who only go back for one refill at the all-you-can-eat buffet. If there were five or even ten starlings in the yard, we wouldn’t mind. But 500 starlings! No, thanks.

One reason we have a problem with starlings is that they’re alien invaders, like stinkbugs and Japanese beetles, who have multiplied out of control in their new, predator-free environment. And we have Shakespeare to thank for it.

Not that Shakespeare meant to unleash starlings on the unsuspecting citizens of America. In fact, we suspect he’d had a few pints too many when he had Harry “Hotspur” Percy announce in Henry IV, Part I that he would teach a starling to speak to the king. He was doubtless confusing them with magpies, whose renowned talent for mimicry has caused many to be taught speech.

Unfortunately for us all, Shakespeare’s starling reference was responsible for the starling invasion here on U.S. soil, thanks to an idiot named Ernest Schieffelin, a wealthy drug manufacturer in the Bronx, and his American Acclimatization Society. Though it sounds like a group dedicated to helping immigrants acclimatize to American customs and ways, its real purpose was to import every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works—all 600 species—and release them in New York’s Central Park.

The European starling took its turn in 1890 and 1891, and spread like contagion across the U.S., growing from an initial flock of 100 to today’s 200-million-plus, and displacing native birds like our beloved bluebird along the way. (Shieffelin’s Society was also responsible for introducing that other menace, the house sparrow, which has displaced innumerable native species of small songbird and threatened their existence.) 

We can only say that, in today’s culinary climate, in which two top trends are all things meat and all things local, it’s a shame that consuming starlings hasn’t caught on. Where are chefs and hunters when you really need them?! And incidentally, we have at least six fat squirrels here at Hawk’s Haven if anyone’s in the mood for burgoo…

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