The Back Porch

Bard and Bird

Alas, the poor starling

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors May-June 2015 issue

We come to praise starlings, not bury them. What? Praise starlings? Perchance to love them?

That’s right, and why not? Shakespeare mentioned the species, if not admired the bird’s ability to mimic sounds. In fact, the starling may be in North America only because of Shakespeare. But we’ll get back to the Bard in a moment.

First, let’s look at the starling. Or close your eyes, if you must, for love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.

Birds at the local feeder are natives and non-natives alike. Some are well dressed, such as the goldfinch, while others are drab and homely, like the house sparrow. At first glance the dark-feathered starling (proper name European starling) appears to be a somber winged visitor, an undertaker of the avian crowd.

Closer examination, however, reveals a bird of many colors. At a distance, starlings look black. Yet after a midsummer’s night, their feathers take on an iridescent purplish-green, offset with yellow beaks. In winter plumage the birds are brown with brilliant white spots.

Even so, if you Google “America’s most hated bird,” sure enough, up pop starlings. They drive out native birds, invade farmers’ fields, and gobble up fruit in orchards. To their sins, it would appear, there is no end, no limit, measure, bound.

In summer, however, the birds also consume beetles, grasshoppers, and caterpillars, making them the gardener’s friend. And there is some dispute as to whether starlings really drive native cavity-nesting birds, like the bluebird, from their nests to the extent they’ve been accused.

If anything, it would appear that the starling is disliked for doing what we humans have done so successfully: adapting, being fruitful, and multiplying.

So what is Shakespeare’s role in all this?

In the Bard’s play Henry IV, Part I, he writes about the starling’s ability to be taught the name of a prisoner and repeat it over and over to King Henry. Starlings are excellent vocal mimics, able to replicate the songs of about 20 bird species as well as other sounds. It’s said Mozart kept a starling as a pet, teaching it to sing bars of his music.

In the late 1800s, a fan of Shakespeare released several dozen starlings in New York City, allegedly to bring Old World birds to the New World. Apparently he also released at least four other European bird species, all of which died.

Not so the starling.

Today there are an estimated 120 million in North America, making them among the most abundant bird species here, along with the American robin, dark-eyed junco, red-winged blackbird, red-eyed vireo, white-throated sparrow, mourning dove, and yellow-rumped warbler.

So love a starling or not; it’s up to you. But the birds are here, are subtly beautiful, and sometimes get a bad rap.

Then again, the course of love never did run smooth.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.