By Sharon Wootton
I grew up in Maryland, where starlings could get no respect. They often won the battle for nesting cavities and nest boxes, destroyed eggs and sometimes killed the young in other species’ nests, were very aggressive at feeders, had few predators, and could poop their way into infamy when roosting in huge numbers.
One year my father saw a starling enter a cavity in a walnut tree. Going closer, he heard the chicks. It didn’t take long for him to hook up the hose and fill the cavity, drowning them and destroying the nest. He wasn’t above using the .22 rifle, either.
Although I doubt that he was paying much attention to the law, starlings are exempt from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, so removing or destroying nests, eggs or starlings is not a crime, and no hunting license or permit is needed. House sparrows and pigeons are also unprotected.
Federal and state governments have killed tens of millions of starlings over just the past few decades, partly because of the hundreds of millions of dollars damage they do to crops, partly because their interaction with planes has caused several dozen deaths.
Let’s go back to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Note the date: 1918, less than three decades after several dozen European starlings were released in New York City’s Central Park by William Shakespeare fans who wanted to introduce the animals mentioned in Shakespeare’s works, including starlings (“Henry IV”).
In a classic example of unintended consequences, the starlings bred and spread at an alarming rate. Estimating the total number of a bird species is not an exact science, even for experts, but there could be about 200 million starlings in the United States.
But don’t blame it all on New Yorkers.
According to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, in 1889 and 1892, the Portland Song Bird Club released 35 pairs of starlings in Portland, Ore. These birds established themselves, but then disappeared in 1901 or 1902.
The next sighting of a starling in the Pacific Northwest was not until the mid-1940s. Presumably these birds could be genetically linked to the 1890 Central Park introduction.
Even the starling has a cool side, one that reader Gary Hatle has appreciated.
“I had a starling high in a tree. It was mimicking a cornucopia of bird sounds. It sounded like a spring morning on the prairie. It went on for two or three minutes. My neighbor thought that I was playing my bird song CD. It even mimicked a woodpecker pecking,” Hatle said.
I heard starlings mimic a few birds back in Maryland, but not as extensively as Hatle’s starling’s vocalizations.
Starlings are cousins of mynahs, both in the family Sturnidae, which comes from the Latin word for starling.
Reports on their complex vocalizations include mimicking of other birds’ warbles, whistles, chips, rattles, and mimicking car alarms, telephones, rattlesnakes, meadowlarks and flickers.
Hatle’s appreciation for starling vocals links him to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who kept a pet starling and a written record of a musical fragment that the bird could whistle, as well as writing down his comment (in German), “That was beautiful.”
About that time, Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453. Apparently his pet had mimicked the theme from the beginning of the last movement, although it sang it in G sharp rather than Mozart’s natural G, according to researchers.
For more on Mozart and mimicking, go to tinyurl.com/p9o7una.
What have you heard a starling mimic?
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The family-oriented recreational activity involves locating hidden containers, called geocaches, using a smartphone or GPS unit.
The GeoTour encourages visitors to explore the parks system and experience the great outdoors.
A printable map and passport, along with GeoTour rules and information, can be found online at www.parks.wa.gov/geocaching.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.