On a cold March morning in 1890, Eugene Scheiffelin traveled from his Bronx home down to Central Park and released sixty (or eighty) rather rattled specimens of Sturnus vulgaris, the European starling. His birds had recently made the ocean passage from England, and must have rejoiced in their sudden freedom after weeks spent cramped and battered in the boat’s hold. Previous shipments had all died in transit; but Schieffelin, chairman of the New York chapter of the American Acclimatization Society, was determined to keep trying, confident that starlings would eventually gain a foothold in the New World. He had done it before, after all: in 1852, the society had successfully seeded the common house sparrow, a feat memorialized by Williams Cullen Bryant in his poem The Olde-world Sparrow:
A winged settler has taken his place
With Teutons and men of Celtic race;
He has followed their path to our hemisphere
The Old-World Sparrow at last is here.
In the 19th century, certain leading citizens had come to regard the American environment as essentially uncivilized: shabby, wild, lacking delicacy and refinement. The acclimatization societies they formed undertook, with varying results, to Europeanize the nation’s lifescape. (The concept of acclimatization was itself a European import, developed as scientists in the colonial powers tried to study and control the chaotic exchange of flora and fauna that their empires had initiated.) According to legend, Schieffelin, the wealthy scion of a pharmaceutical clan, had refocused this goal through the lens of a private monomania: his special ambition was to introduce to the continent every bird that appears in Shakespeare. Starlings are accomplished mimics, capable of copying not only the calls of other birds but human speech and musical phrases as well. (Mozart was so taken by the bird’s musical abilities that he kept one as a pet for three years, and held an elaborate funeral upon its death.) It’s this talent for mimicry that secured starlings their place in the canon: in Henry IV Part I, Hotspur dreams of getting a bird to bother his irksome king, who has refused to ransom Hotpsur’s brother Mortimer and has ordered that no one speak his name:
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
The first winter, reportedly, was difficult, but the birds took refuge in the nooks and crannies of the American Museum of Natural History – foreshadowing their eventual mastery of urban nesting – and many made it through to Spring. When the cold broke, Schieffelin released forty more, and the replenished flock began to spread across the park and into the city. Starlings are well-suited to the role of invader, particularly in human-altered environments, to which they come happily “pre-adapted.” They are one of the few bird species that can thrive in open, grassy expanses, due to a unique jaw musculature which allows them to pry into grass and dirt. They are clever, tenacious, adaptable, and capable of nesting in places other birds avoid. Starlings are also extremely belligerent, and habitually commandeer the homes of other birds. By 1929 they had crossed the Mississippi, and were first sighted in California around the start of World War II, trailing American settlers at about a century’s lag. Today there are more than 200 million starlings in the continental US, most of them confirmed descendants of Schieffelin’s original gang.
Starlings will sometimes flaunt this remarkable success, gathering in huge flocks to perform intricate and inexplicable sky dances called murmurations. But their joie de vivre is shared by few extra-species observers. In addition to evicting meeker nesting birds, starlings cause over $800 million in crop damages per year, and they shit everywhere. In fact they are one of the few pest species for whom a poison has been specially developed: the whimsically named Starlicide, first registered in 1967, which kills by causing rapid kidney failure. Birdwatchers and conservationists are unreserved in their hatred of the birds, frustrated by their omnipresence and the apparent damage that they’ve caused to native species (though the extent of this damage is up for debate). Few rescue centers in the country will treat an injured starling.[FC] As Rachel Carson wrote in 1939, “In spite of his remarkable success as a pioneer, the starling probably has fewer friends than almost any other creature that wears feathers.”
Still, this hostility is not unanimous. Starlings have long been sold as pets in Europe – Mozart’s case was not unusual, and supporters claim that figures as eminent as Nero, Agrippa, Pliny the Elder, and Aristotle all kept starlings – and for good reason: they are smart, curious, social, and communicative creatures, and they seem to enjoy being petted. In the States, a small but dedicated subculture has grown up around starling cultivation. Points of entry are various: some seek out starlings as pets, but some simply find abandoned chicks in their yards or parks and feel compelled to try and save them. Many of these birdfriends will find their way to the website and forum StarlingTalk, which I first saw mentioned in Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s 2016 memoir Mozart’s Starling. The page was founded in 1999 by Jackie Collins, a longtime bird rehabilitator with a contrarian streak who had developed a special attachment to starlings. It contains vast resources on the proper care of the bird, and also hosts a lively forum where enthusiasts share knowledge and stories. To this day the forum is an inspiring place to hang out. One is reminded of the old subcultural internet, connector of far-flung people with endearingly wacky passions, back before its image was [defined] by racist trolls with a yearning for feudalism. The StarlingTalk forums are dominated by a small cadre of extremely dedicated users – the top 5 posters combined account for 24% of posts, many in response to requests like “Help – crackly breathing” or “what to do if they seem bored”. The following post, from a thread titled “Help! My STARLING JACK JUST ATE A TINY PIECE Of LILY!” is maybe not unrepresentative. The poster has been reassured by Kathleen that Jack is in no immediate danger, and responds with relief:
So good to hear from you, Kathleen!
His poo’s were runny diarrhea for about 10 mins... Now their solid.
I can’t be sure it was lily but I wouldn’t want to take chances with my sweet little heart.
I have gained so much from you guys.... From the diet to everything else ...
I’ve spent days and long nights reading so many threads and all the info on Starling Talk.
I had no idea what I had when I found him- what kind of bird he was...
You guys saved our butts literally!
Well, it’s been two hours now and he’s acting fine. Sitting on my arm preening as I type this.
Such a great little bird, I never knew when I took in a tiny baby bird, I’d have a friend for life.
It was through the forum as well that I found An Unwelcome Guest, the hour-long documentary on starling history and biology made by an Oklahoma man named Richard Smedley. The film is of confusingly high quality, narrated by a professional voice actor (I think) and researched, shot and cut with skill. One of the few markers of its amateur status is the fact that the principle talking head featured is Mr. Smedley himself. (Others include biologists, park rangers, and children’s book authors.) By rigging up small cameras in a bird-box designed specifically for starlings, Smedley captured hours of footage of the birds’ behavior in the wild. (He also keeps a few starlings as pets, and they get a good share of screen-time as well.) We see starlings courting, starlings chatting, starlings at war, starlings being born and growing and learning, all intimate and alien at once. In one memorable section, Smedley rather offhandedly delivers compelling evidence, via slowed-down audio recordings, that the birds are capable of communicative speech. (Again, the documentary seems to have arrive from a now defunct future: a world where, everyone’s basic needs having been met, they are free to spend their time pursuing strange and singular fascinations and sharing them with each other via cheap and widely distributed communications technology.)
Smedley’s analysis of starling song is one of the movie’s most bravura bits. During mating season, male starlings deploy their remarkable ability for mimicry to compose and perform stunning, and stunningly bizarre, sound collages. The starling mating display is entirely sonic. A typical birdsong repeats after a just few measures; starlings have been recorded repeating fifteen-phrase anthems. And these anthems are composed of the most heterogeneous units: a squawk will be followed by a snatch of lark-song will be followed by the sound of a siren will be followed by a baby wailing will be followed by a series of untraceable clicks and rattles will be followed by a few words in Spanish. Brilliant bricoleur! It sounds like a sort of avante-avante-garde deconstructed hip-hop – and what might it mean? I find this description, from a 2009 article in a Canadian paper, especially stirring:
According to neurologist Lauren Riters of the University of Wisconsin, starlings have among the longest and most complex songs of any birds in North America. They continually incorporate new sounds into their vocal arrangements, often mimicking frogs, goats, cats and even other birds. The result is an admixture: warbles, creaks, squeaks, whistles, throaty chirrups, twitters and raspy trills.
While singing, the starling syrinx vibrates in two separate parts, which allow one bird to sing harmonizing duets with itself. “Starlings sing because it makes them feel good,” Riters explains.
“Most other birds only sing in spring, but starlings sing all year.”
Starlings have in fact managed many post-Shakespeare literary appearances. My favorite might be Thomas Hardy’s 1919 poem, Starlings on the Roof:
‘No smoke spreads out of this chimney-pot,
The people who lived here have left the spot,
And others are coming who knew them not.
‘If you listen anon, with an ear intent,
The voices, you’ll find, will be different
From the well-known ones of those who went.’
‘Why did they go? Their tones so bland
Were quite familiar to our band;
The comers we shall not understand.’
‘They look for a new life, rich and strange;
They do not know that, let them range
Wherever they may, they will get no change.
‘They will drag their house-gear ever so far
Their search for a home no miseries mar;
They will find that as they were they are,
‘That every hearth has a ghost, alack,
And can be but the scene of a bivouac
Till they move perforce — no time to pack!’
Here we find the bird in its ancestral habitat, the old European countryside; in fact the starlings seem to speak in the jaded voice of the land itself. This is Europe after WWI: wasted, exhausted, the promises of technology and civilization revealed to have always been bad jokes. Our birds, tired witnesses to endless repetitions of the same tragedy, blithely peck apart the spectacle of human delusion. A pure dose of old-world malaise.
Compare this with William Carlos Williams’ 1948 poem The Maneuver:
I saw the two starlings
coming in toward the wires.
But at the last,
just before alighting, they
turned in the air together
and landed backwards!
that’s what got me — to
face into the wind’s teeth.
Against the staid rhymes and rhythms of Hardy’s late-Victorian style, Williams’ poem appears fresh and full of energy. Here we are in the States just after WWII, a moment of immense optimism and unrestrained force. Williams’ starlings are daring, aggressive, athletic, alive. They must fight to make themselves at home, which they do with swagger and verve. These are some New World birds: conquerors.
Perhaps the distance between the worlds evoked by the two poems is best summarized by contrasting the military metaphors they employ: Hardy’s family live an endless bivouac, while Williams’ starlings maneuver across the sky like jet fighters.
Just this past year, the young American poet Myronn Hardy published a book titled Radioactive Starlings. Its title poem is fractured, agrammatical, violent – salty earth and hot sky, a cry from the heart of the capitalocene. The poem seems to synthesize the darkest elements of both its antecedents: (Thomas) Hardy’s shell-shocked world run over again by Williams’ unbridled force, this time so ruined that not even the birds can muster anything like calm commentary. Here’s how the poem, and I guess the world, ends:
They collide break as
if bulbs clutter
stone streets. Green during
hum sickly green empties.
This is how we kill are killing.
Sweepers in uniform drop brooms ash.
Legs ash almost clavicles exposed.
Cars melt are smelted.
Rising gray funnels what will fall?
What will fall here?
What has fallen?
Starlings as glass black sharp
An abrupt end to the grace
they have given.
Never again never will
we have this. Starlings as
radioactive gifts in boxes.
Dead starlings in boxes we
are boxed. Will end in wood
earth will end will be the end.
But for all their troubling ubiquity, outside of literature starlings often go unrecognized. To most of us they are simply another dull thing pecking around the medians, “a tremor at the edge of vision,” on the same order as crows and grackles and sparrows and whatever else is always around. Birds.
There is a contemporary dream that cuts across many different discourses. Let’s call it the dream of resensitization. What we are, this dream tells us, is alienated: from the world and from ourselves, from our senses and maybe our whole bodies. See David Abram, for instance, in his well-known work The Spell of the Sensuous:
“Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence.”
The usually prescribed antidote is a re-education of attention – an effort to attune, to recover by whatever means a state of receptivity. We meet versions of this dream everywhere: appeals from nature writers, from mindfulness gurus, from educators, from artists, self-help authors, philosophers pop- and academic. Wake up! Come alive! Look -- deeper, longer, harder! The starling is a perfect ‘objective correlative’ for this dream, because the starling is a secret beauty. If you aren’t paying much attention, it’s easy to disregard as a scrawny little crowthing; but look closer, in the right light, and you will see that the bird is in fact a baroque visual wonder. Oil-slick iridescence, golden polka-dot coat, Chinese-ball filigree limning every feather… The little bird seems to embody the doctrine of attention: wake up to the world, to life, even (especially) when it’s pecking chicken bones in the gutter.
But expand the frame and the bird might spur a different, darker sort of lucidity. Drilling in on the nearest starling also reminds us that behind the objects of everyday experience (in Brooklyn at least) lies a history of domination, of exploitation, of stupidity and ruin and murder. Documents of barbarity, etc. Slave-built cellphone, clothes, shoes, stolen island, shiny condos next to heatless housing projects and unmarked homeless shelters, all those little species dying... History is the nightmare into which we can’t stop waking. The bird can be a kind of winged lure for this hermeneutics of suspicion, a waddling reminder of the present’s murderous past and future.
The extreme of the first dream is a happy sinking into the spectacle: everyday life as an LSD trip, the world refreshed and re-presented. The extreme of the second is the paranoid stance, constantly diagnosing and denouncing. Both positions tend toward passivity and fecklessness. In a certain strain of Tibetan vajrayana, adepts intentionally cultivate the two views –world as “Pure Land,” full of radiant buddha-beings, and world as charnel house, a hell of shambling corpses – and learn to switch between them at will. Eventually, after sufficient time spent in both scenes – as if sobering up by dunking one’s head repeatedly in hot and then cold water – one comes to see reality straight, no chaser, maybe in the manner of Melville’s character Hautboy:
In most of his remarks upon a variety of topics Hautboy seemed to hit the exact line between enthusiasm and apathy. It was plain that while Hautboy saw the world pretty much as it was, yet he did not theoretically espouse its bright side nor its dark side. Rejecting all solutions, he but acknowledged facts. What was sad in the world he did not superficially gainsay; what was glad in it he did not cynically slur; and all which was to him was personally enjoyable, he gratefully took to his heart.
I bet that’s the way that the starlings look at us.
Hoping to untangle these positions, I took a camera into Central Park, the site of the starling’s ‘New World’ debut. Legend has it that they hang out in the Shakespeare Garden, honoring the bard who made their introduction; but there I only found flocks of birders.
The starlings were next door, around the edges of the Delacorte Theater, fighting with grackles for trash.
Peck, peck, pry, peck, peck, pry...
In my confusion, I recalled the old fable.
Sun was lonely and bored, so she made Earth and filled it with living creatures. At first her creation gave her great pleasure, and she watched it constantly. Under the warmth of her gaze, Earth’s residents flourished and multiplied. Little mountain sprouts grew to be mighty trees, and fields of tall grass spread across the valleys. With Sun watching over them, all the plants and animals lived in peace and happiness.
One day Sun grew tired of her creation. She gathered up what black yarn she could find to knit a veil – but black yarn was precious and rare, so what she wove was threadbare and full of holes. When she finished, she threw the veil over the Earth to hide it from her sight.
The creatures on the surface were thrown suddenly into panic and chaos. They walked into trees and fell off cliffs or into lakes or holes. No one knew how to get home, and everyone ended up in the wrong place. Soon they were caught in a war of each against each, waging furious and clumsy battles with neighbors whom they could not even identify.
Starling, who was made of pure silver from his feathers to his heart, was horrified by what he saw. He summoned all his strength, leaped into the sky, and began flying toward the edge of the Earth. All the other creatures ceased their fighting to watch as he crossed the sky. From where they stood down on Earth, he looked like a bright disc against the spotted black backdrop.
When Starling reached the edge of the sky, he gathered up Sun’s veil in his beak and wrapped it around himself. It was day again! All the creatures rejoiced and began the work of rebuilding their world. But when Starling returned to the surface, no one recognized him, as his once radiant beauty now only shone through the small holes in the veil.
Sun was furious with Starling, and searched for him across the whole face of Earth; but in his new garment he was hard to find. When finally she spotted him, she seized back the veil and unfurled it once more over the sky. But as soon as she turned away, Starling leaped back into the sky and began his crossing anew.
To this day they continue to chase one another: all day Sun searches for Starling so that she might retrieve her veil, and all night Starling crosses the sky to steal it back. The other creatures have grown used to their game, and use the dark time to sleep; but Starling, who is always either seeking or hiding, can never rest.