Backyard Naturalist: Susie Spikol – Reasons to get starry-eyed for starlings

Starling fledglings on an old elm stump.

Starling fledglings on an old elm stump. PHOTO BY MEADE CADOT

A starling sits perched on a wire.

A starling sits perched on a wire. PHOTO BY MEADE CADOT

Susie Spikol

Susie Spikol FILE PHOTO

Published: 06-21-2024 12:01 PM

Please don’t honk at me. I’m the car stopped extra long at the intersection of routes 101 and 202 in Peterborough.

I’m car bird-watching, and I’m shocked that not more cars have lingered at the light to watch the family of European starlings, nesting inside the traffic light’s pole. I’ve watched each spring as the male carries grass, pine needles, feathers and even bits of trash over to a hole in the pole suspended over this busy intersection. I’ve seen the female poke her yellow bill and purply iridescent head out to chatter and buzz. And once, on an early morning outing to get bagels, I witnessed a little fledgling take its first breathtaking, tumbling flight out into the world.

Admittedly, the European starling isn’t a cool bird to like. It isn’t rare like a peregrine falcon, and it is not a delicate beauty like a ruby-throated hummingbird. Its boisterous chatter is neither melodious like a wood thrush nor haunting like a loon. It has a lot going against it.

Not originally native to North America, the European starling was intentionally brought to America in 1890. The legend goes that a rich Shakespeare-obsessed socialite named Eugene Schieffelin released 100 starlings in New York City’s Central Park. According to the story, he wanted to bring all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works, and starlings make a one-line appearance in “Henry IV, Part 1.”

Recent research seems to suggest a more-mundane reason for Schieffelin’s starling release; he was searching for a bird to eat the caterpillars that were ruining his garden. Now almost 135 years later, European starlings number over 200 million and range from Alaska to Mexico, and research indicates that every starling in North America is descended from Eugene Schieffelin’s original 100!

Many birders show contempt for this bossy interloper. They are an agricultural pest eating millions of dollars in grain and fruit crops yearly. Worse than that, these highly successful invasive species out-compete native birds like Eastern bluebirds for resources such as food and nesting locations. They sometimes kill off their competition to get the best real estate. I know, this is not good behavior.

But the European starling isn’t all noise and aggression. They are fabulous mimics, copying the songs of over 20 different birds, including the Eastern meadowlark, Eastern wood pewee, and even red-tailed hawks. In the winter, when their flocks can number in the thousands, they are the artists of the sky, capturing our imagination with large, swooping, ever- changing, formations called murmurations. If you’ve never seen this phenomenon, check it out by searching the web! You will be stunned!

I know I probably shouldn’t even admit this, but I have a thing for this bird. We go way back. Growing up in Brooklyn, I watched them flit along in the giant Norway maples that dotted my neighborhood. Their droppings coated cars and their boisterous chirps, whirs, rattles and whistles woke everyone up too early. Neighbors would set off firecrackers at the base of the trees to scare the flock over to another block. I’d watch as the boom sent a flurry of starlings high into the sky like a feathered fireworks show.

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And then there was Martha Raye, a baby starling my mother rescued and raised. Martha Raye was left on our doorstep in a shoebox, just a fluff of feathers, looking for food. My mom, with her big heart, was known in our neighborhood to find homes for abandoned cats and dogs, but a baby bird was new. Armed with an eyedropper, and a few calls to our local veterinarian, she fed that little bird every two hours. I helped her, and can still remember the insistent begging peeps and its wide mouth opening for a tweezer full of bugs. She named the little starling Martha Raye after an actress who at the time was nicknamed Big Mouth for not only her wide mouth but also her sass.

Martha Raye fell hard for my mom. It was mutual, though. They would chirp and buzz at each other, and one of my favorite memories of my mom was when she gave Martha flying lessons in our living room. A cigarette clamped between her teeth, she had Martha on a stick, which she gently bounced up and down while flapping her free arm and running from one end of the room to the other. Oh, how she cheered when her little fledging took her first flight.

Next time you are at the traffic light in downtown Peterborough, don’t forget to look up at the traffic light pole. You too, might watch these highly adaptable birds making “Our Town” their town, too!

Susie Spikol is community programs director and naturalist at Harris Center for Conservation Education.