14. Sturnus vulgaris

serviceberries.jpg

September 12, 2016

The starling’s right eye, uniformly black, watches me. He assesses, I imagine, the level of threat I might pose. “Any closer and I’m out of here”, I read in his posture. I agree, this view is too close for my comfort as well. Larger than life-size, on the left hand page of a magazine on the kitchen table, the head and shoulder study of an adult male starling in breeding plumage alarms me. Its caption credits Ervio Sian with the photo. I see a glossy black bird with oily sheen of green and violet iridescence on his throat hackle feathers. His face points into a Roman-thrusting-sword bill, strong and sharp. Yellow, the bill fades at its base to pearly blue-grey. I see no pretty bird; the creature looks dangerous, alien, ancient.

On the magazine’s opposite page, eyes are smiling at me. They invite me to sit down and smoke a “Matinee. Comfortingly mild” at the table in the pleasant kitchen with the pretty homemaker who has just now burned a pan of Yorkshire puddings. The full-page cigarette add gives away the magazine’s age. Water stain at the bottom of the page reminds me of the fire in the bookshelf upstairs several years ago. The Westworld, November-December 1976, is a keepsake. The title at the top of the left-hand page:

“Starlings

Sternus vulgaris is an infuriating mimic who can imitate over sixty North American birds as well as cats, frogs and lawnmowers; it also seems to imitate us in the way it has settled the land.

“By Gerald Harris”

The starling essay in those brittle old pages still appeals to my ear and reading taste. I wonder again why I so quickly put away the possibility of nature writing as a career. Selling my magazine articles proved easy in Vancouver in the 1970s. But my true calling, I assured myself at the time, was higher than mere journalism. I converted the material about starlings into a long poem that nobody wanted. Wresting a living from writing, I have suspected since, competing in that tough business, felt too scary, not what I imagined or needed writing to be.

Starlings visited Fern Street Park this morning. The first little flock I have noticed here this summer landed in a Douglas fir. Their fall-and-winter plumage made them easy to recognize. I observed black, short-tailed birds covered with many white speckles, pulling seeds out of the fir cones.

Where have they been all summer, I wondered? I had thought of them as a most-common city resident. My Birds of Victoria and Vicinity (1989) would assure me that “This stubby black bird is a familiar sight in the city a truly urban bird that is here year-round.” Now I wondered: could starlings be fading away in Victoria?

Even in 1976 they had passed their population peak on the coast. The Westworld magazine article gives a Vancouver slant on the starling invasion story. It began in New York City in 1890 when “…Eugene Schieffelin sowed the air of Central Park with the ancestors of all North American starlings…. Schieffelin, a wealthy New York drug manufacturer, [hadn’t seen] many birds in his city, and [had] concluded that North America was short of birds. He also thought it lacked culture. So he [had] attacked both problems at once by importing all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare.” My writing in 1976 sounds to me now a bit flippant possibly.

It also reflects my mother’s writing interest in British Columbia’s colonial history: “Following the route of the Nor’wester Alexander Mackenzie, [starlings] probably journeyed up the Peace River from Alberta into BC, down the Fraser through the Cariboo country, then overland to the saltchuck at Bella Coola in 1947.” In the summer of 1948, birdwatchers first observed Sternus vulgaris near Vancouver in the Fraser valley. The Westworld article continues:

“It was Fraser delta blueberry farmers who first brought the new arrivals to public attention, with shotguns, in 1965. Until then, unnoticed by most of us, Vancouver’s starling population had been building up at an astonishing rate. From a winter census of five in December 1952, the count had soared by the 1964 census to almost 200,000. So in the summer of 1965 Vancouver heard sounds of battle over the delta as starling hordes plundered blueberry fields of an estimated $62,000 worth of berries.”

“… that winter, January 1966,… a newspaper reported 500,000 in Vancouver roosts – with Cambie Bridge alone hosting over 150,000…. The head of Vancouver bridge maintenance warned that ten million would soon crowd False Creek and other Vancouver roosts.

“…. starling numbers never reached ten million, nor even one million. The 1966 [December] census tallied only about 250,000. And no count since has exceeded 100,000.”

For a few decades I haven’t paid much attention to starling populations. Now I search recent news headlines and see that Fraser valley blueberry growers continue to combat them: ‘Trap and kill’ starlings program approved in Abbotsford. I see that the British Columbia Blueberry Council commissioned a report in 2010, an Investigation of Starling Populations in British Columbia, from wildlife ecologist Douglas Ransome. He concludes that we now see only one tenth the number of starlings in winter as at their peak in 1966. Breeding populations declined, Dr. Ransome asserts, until 2003, then possibly stabilized. So it’s true; we do see fewer starlings these days.

Increasing explosively, declining dramatically, then leveling-off, Sturnus vulgaris has traced a pattern common to wildlife species that invade new territories. The invaders take local ecosystems by surprise and have everything their own way at first. Local creatures require some decades to fully adapt to the new member of their community. Predators, competitors, parasites, diseases, prey species and blueberry farmers respond. In Victoria, for example, researchers noted that numbers of city-dwelling Coopers hawks had increased, and wondered what they ate. The resulting study, entitled Introduced Species Dominate the Diet of Urban Cooper’s Hawks in British Columbia (Wilson’s Journal, 2012), reveals that about 30% of a hawk’s diet in this city is Sternus vulgaris.

Starlings are not disappearing from Victoria. Our Natural History Society still lists them as common year-round in southeastern Vancouver Island. Here in the Jubilee neighbourhood, close to the urban core, sightings increase at this time of year as birds assume their fall and winter patterns of feeding, flocking and roosting.

For spring and summer breeding season they prefer to find a nest cavity adjacent to pastureland, and to remain there feeding steadily on invertebrates from the sod. The stabbing-sword bill of Sternus vulgaris evolved mainly for foraging bugs in the ground. It probes deep, then pries open for searching. The bird’s digestive system derives twice the food value from insects as from vegetable foods; nestlings depend fully on invertebrates. In breeding season, we would see starlings mostly on cattle-grazing lands and cultivated fields farther up the Saanich peninsula.

Late in summer the birds’ digestive system physically changes. The gizzard enlarges; the gut lengthens, and starlings can more efficiently digest plant foods. By now, September, they join into larger flocks and seek an omnivore’s diet over a wider area, perhaps forty square kilometers. The city offers autumn attractions of warm communal roosting sites and human food scraps.

“Hey! Look here!”, the black bird on the left-hand page demands. “First, I’m not black. OK? You can’t imagine my colour. Look at the science. Your eyes lack UV light receptors. Your brain lacks hues for that entire range of wavelengths. My colour doesn’t talk to you; it talks to other starlings. It says what a healthy bird I am, desirable mate, strong defender. Ripe blueberries are not dark blue. OK? Ripe seed cones are not plain brown. You can’t imagine their colours. Those plants are not talking to you. Their colours call me down from the sky to eat their fruits and spread their seeds. Trees and bushes learned to use UV light to talk to little birds a million years before your species appeared.”

“My long throat hackle feathers are not talking to you. They carry information vital to lady starlings. So do my songs and the mimicry that so amuses you. Every year I grow my hackles and my songs longer, and learn new sounds. Look at your science. Starling mortality rate: 50% per year. If I can keep growing my hackles and expanding my vocal repertoire for five years, ten, twenty, they declare my intelligence, the good choices I make day-after-day, year-after-year to survive so long. Females value the information; DNA that encodes such capacity for wisdom is worth much to us.”

“I’m answering your question. Do you remember your question? You stood beside your car years ago and watched our murmuration – in the Fraser valley – in autumn – remember? Hundreds of us flocked above farmland. Sherryll watched with you, and you said, ‘I wonder what they’re spelling.’”

I do remember, yes. I was joking, but the shapes you starlings made in the air captivated me. The flock, the murmuration, kept changing formation with such harmony, so fluidly that I imagined you writing messages in the air in some script I longed to understand, three-dimensional flying longhand, composed from tiny dots with wings.

“OK. It was a good question. Your science helps me answer. Murmuration is how we talk about big things. The shapes the flock forms is the discussion. It helps me make my good choices: where and when to feed and roost. And it keeps me safe. We need to communicate in the air while we travel. Hawks up there try to pick us off. Our close-formation flight confuses them. A hawk needs to single out one starling and go for it. But we fly in such unity that the hawk sees a big moving blob that keeps changing. Individual birds vanish into it. The physicists and aerospace engineers say that I continually track the seven closest starlings around me and constantly adjust my position in relation to all of them.

“But I’m one bird. I bring my own life experience to the murmuration, my knowledge of the territory from yesterday and from years ago. I dive toward a crop or a roost, and my motion sends information into the flock. Birds nearby move with me a little bit or a lot, diminishing or amplifying my assertion within the forum. I pull back in or separate out. Groups of us leave; other groups join; the discussion carries on.”

Lovely. Yes. I admire your mumuration’s elegant interplay of individual and community knowing and action. And now I understand your longhand; I read its message to me:

“Truth is known by its survival value. Thoughts that assist in making good choices are true. Experience proves-out ideas constructive to wellbeing. They become truth for me as individual, community, species, for me as planet. My evolution selects for truth.”

The swirl of moving dots in the air writes:

“Earth life is intrinsically disposed toward consciousness. Define consciousness as capacity for action based on information. In bacteria it appears rather rudimentary, but in starlings, brilliantly expressed. The present disruptive moment in the life of the planet, when consciousness looks at itself, is called humanity.”

The starling’s right eye looks at me from the magazine page. Evolution has equipped his right eye primarily to receive information about the position and motion of things. His left eye receives information predominantly about colours. My colour doesn’t interest him; I’m neither a ripening berry nor a territorial rival. My motion interests him. He views me as potential hazard. I do too. When I turn toward myself my eye of Earth evolving, I see peril. As Earth this moment scares me. This new emerging capacity of mine, the human, my capacity for self-reflection, could go so wrong. I love it, but I hope it proves true.