Monday, May 15th
bright sun, blue sky, 60’s, breezy, waning gibbous moon 81% illuminated, late afternoon
Here, living in the city, I am on a near constant search for signs of life. Other than human that is. And surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) there is so much of it! I’m constantly amazed. The most lovely and delicate of ivy vines push their way up through the smallest cracks in the sidewalks, black locust flowers drip from the trees, Possums wriggle their way over our fences, and birds seek out the tiniest crevices to build their nests. One of my favorite wild neighbors is the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).
I know starlings have a bad rap. Yes, they are cavity nesters, capable of stealing precious homes from more respected, native birds. Yes they can be aggressive, and have been know to destroy or evict the eggs of their cavity competitors. Yes, they are noisy. Yes, they are a bit rumpled looking. Yes they are messy, bold, and ever present.
And yet I cannot help but love them with all of my being.
They are so tenacious! So clever! So undeniably wild even in this most domesticated of settings. A creature after my own heart.
Natives of Europe, in the late 1800’s 60 birds were released in Central Park by the Acclimatization Society, a group dedicated to bringing every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings to America. Odd I know, but the plan was a success in the case of the Starlings and today they number up to 2 million individuals in North America.
For weeks now Rev and I have watched several pairs of our feathered friends building nests in all the little open spaces on our block- they especially seem to the like the tiny niches in the corner of the house roofs, where the shingles meet the siding of these old city houses.
One day we planted our small yellow window box with yellow violets and lavender. Not an hour later a starling appeared, tugging on the stalks of purple and yellow flowers and carrying them up to her spot just under our roof. It turns out they often harvest aromatic plants for their nests to deter parasites. What excellent housekeepers! I like to think of her little chicks cozy in there now, growing up with the scent of lavender in the air. And yes, they do have an excellent sense of smell, as do many birds, contrary to popular belief.
Incredible mimics- they are cousins of the mynah bird, a world renown mimic- Starlings have been heard singing like the wood thrush, american robin, red-tailed hawk and many other birds. They are also capable of copying more urban sounds, like police sirens, car alarms, ringing phones AND human speech. I like to listen to their conversations in the morning while I drink coffee by the open window. Their high pitched squeals and squeaks remind me of something mechanical, and Rev and I picture little robots emitting radio waves tending tiny robot eggs up above.
On our walks around town we’ve been finding tiny pieces of recently hatched and discarded eggshell on the sidewalks under their nests and blowing around the streets. Rev collected a few for his nature box and the shards are so blue and delicate they feel like little chips of sky when I hold them in my hand. Whenever possible Starling families like to use the same nesting site year after year. This house is their home as much as it is mine.
In the fall, and winter, after the babies grow up, their behavior will change. Large groups of Starlings will flock together to glean seeds and insects out of the wintering farm fields, and they will roost together at night in massive groups. They will grow a new coat without losing the old one, and the white tips of their new feathers will make patterns of polka dots on their bellies and breasts that look like little tattoos or maps of the stars.
At dusk, or at the first sign of a predator, you might see a flock of Starlings take to the sky. They are capable of flying very fast, in very tight formations, as though they were one organism instead of many individuals. They twist and undulate and dodge and dance, in very much the same way a school of fish swims in the sea.
They call this a murmuration, which feels like the most perfect of words for such a thing. It makes me think of the word murmur of course, of quiet conversations, and whispered thoughts. Of heartbeats with an echo, steady and unsteady at the very same time.
And the hum the Starling wings must make, as they write one of earth’s stories across the clear, blue, sky.