Monday, April 25, 2011

The Invaders (Part One of Three)

For more Stellar's Jay action, see my previous post Turf Wars
 The action in and around my front yard has been changing the last few weeks -- spring brings new visitors and familiar visitors change their behaviors.  There have been some really exciting arrivals -- especially the Stellar's Jays -- who I believe may be nesting nearby.  


But a lot of my attention -- and my camera time -- has been focused on three species who are not always well regarded:


European Starlings,


House Sparrows, 


and the Norway rat.   

Some naturalists would put these species at the top of the Public Enemies list, a kind of environmental Axis of Evil.  Others raise questions about how much they are to blame for the damage sometimes attributed to them.  Nevertheless, they are here, and no matter how much trouble they may sometimes be for us (or for competing native species), realistically they aren't going anywhere any time soon.  And whatever else they may be, they are fascinating species in their own right, with much to teach us about the adaptability and persistence of life.  

In winter, starlings are brown, covered with white speckles that fade as winter progresses. In summer, they are black with purple and green iridescence and yellow beaks. 

The European Starling is one of the most successful and widespread birds in the world.  With help from human beings, it has spread from its normal range -- which includes almost all of Eurasia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, northern India, Nepal, and parts of China -- and been "successfully" (the success here is purely from the starlings point of view, other species may characterize it differently) to North America, Australia, New Zealand and islands in the Caribbean.  In many areas where they have established themselves, they are considered pests.  They have been credited with the demise of native species, the introduction of invasive species of plants, and damage to crops and agriculture. 

They like urban areas, thriving around people.  In North America Starlings are ubiquitous, their range stretching from Mexico to Canada.  

Eugene Schieffelin (usually described as "eccentric") was the president of the American Acclimatization Society, a group which was part of an international movement to introduce interesting and "useful" species into nations where they were not native.  Some sources claim that Schieffelin wanted to introduce into America all the species that were mentioned in Shakespeare's works (Starlings are mentioned in Henry IV), but other sources question or dismiss that motivation.  What is certain though, is that Schieffelin twice -- in 1890 and 1891 -- organized the release of approximately 60 European Starlings into Central Park in New York.  The first release was considered a failure, but the second succeeded beyond all expectations.  According to The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's All About Birds site, all of the starlings in North America are descended from these early releases -- and the Starling population here shows remarkable genetic uniformity. 
What is really amazing to me, however, is the Starling's vocal ability.  In the urban neighborhood where I used to live, starlings almost seemed like smaller versions of the crows they often flocked with.  I didn't get much chance to listen to them.  Now, in a slightly more suburban neighborhood, I often stand on the deck of my house and listen to what sounds like a small chorus of birds -- sounds that range from whistles, pops, clicks and screeches, to scraps of songs that are almost familiar -- all of it emanating from one starling in the tree overhead. If you hear a bird that sounds like it is arguing with itself in multiple voices, it is almost certainly a starling.  Because they often have an "electronic" sound to their songs, I think of starlings as the re-mixers of birds, sampling and combining a wide variety of sounds into something truly their own.  A few days ago, three starlings in my yard seemed to be improvising a complex melody, with one of them providing a "base-line" that sounded for all the world like a rapper beat-boxing.  

All About Birds says that starlings are known to copy the songs of up to 20 species, including (to name only the one's common to this area) robins, Red-Tailed Hawks, and Flickers.  I'm pretty sure that the Starlings in my neighborhood have learned to imitate chickadees as well.

Starlings have been known for generations as exceptional mimics.  They can even learn human speech.  Mozart had a pet starling, and is believed to have incorporated some of its songs into his own work.  (For some interesting background on Starlings and their abilities, plus a chance to listen to Mozart's "Musical Joke" check out Starling Talk).  You can also see some examples of starlings talking and demonstrating their remarkable range here and here.  (These videos will lead you to many more if you're interested.)

Even knowing the possible negative effects of Starlings on the native ecology and the controversies surrounding them, I find myself almost every day listening to them with a kind of awe.  And I am very grateful for the chance to get to know them.

Tomorrow, I will take up the second species in the Axis of Evil -- the House Sparrow.

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