Yesterday, I heard the queerest bird song — like a vireo’s but not. I had to go outside and investigate. I tracked the sound to the area of its source and looked up, as vireos sing from the treetops; not that I expected to actually see it, since they are so well camouflaged. I’ve only seen one once, in early spring before the leaves had come out.
While I was searching, I realized the sound was coming from ear level. “Are you in the bush?” I asked. (Yes, I talk to Nature.) The bird song stopped. I whistled and it answered; in the whistling was something very familiar — a prickly, rustly burble. I reached into the bush a metre or two away (a lovely, blooming spirea) and shook one branch. The song went silent. I concluded that my hunch was probably right: there was a starling in there, secretly trying out a vireo song!
It’s easy to dislike starlings. They form huge flocks and can do a lot of damage to a crop in a short time. They’re highly adaptive to urban life, too, and can often be seen arrayed on wires, murmuring, whistling and dropping lots of waste as they socialize. Most significantly, starlings are an introduced species that competes against and displaces native North American species. The first starlings were brought to North America and released by a fool who thought it would be nice to bring over all the birds mentioned in works by Shakespeare.
“Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”Henry IV Part 1, Act 1 Scene iii
Nevertheless, starlings have pecked their way into my affections. They are amazing mimics. At different times I have heard a cat’s meow and a car horn coming from on high and, puzzled, looked up to see a solitary starling, shifting on a wire and looking pleased with itself. The most incredible performance I’ve witnessed was a starling sampling the songs of half a dozen other birds — the modus operandi of the Northern mockingbird. A mimic imitating another mimic: Wow!
I also can’t help but admire a flock of starlings in the air. Hundreds, even thousands, of individual birds behave as one, fluid entity, cavorting in the air the way certain schools of fish do in the ocean. It’s a wonder, to watch them paint their ever-changing shapes on the canvas of the sky.… Check out this National Geographic video and you’ll see.
P.S. Starlings aren’t particularly handsome but they are easy to identify. They’re a kind of dark no-colour with a little iridescence about the shoulders and their feathers have an untidy aspect. A flock will include many immature birds, which are speckled all over with “stars” of white — hence the name.