Starling Confessions

An Opinion Piece by David Cook

I have an avian confession to make: over the past 3 months I have grown more fond of starlings. There, I said it. Even though I’m still a relatively new birder, I know what I’m supposed to think of starlings.
Invasives, they don’t belong here; they damage crops; they crowd out native species; they can impact aviation and spread disease. But even after reading the USDA Wildlife Damage Management Technical Series on the European Starling, which outlines all these impacts and more, my recent fondness has not waned.
Should I consider them less than the grackles whose gifts I need to regularly wash from my car? Or the cowbirds that commandeer nests? Perhaps, but I don’t.
Three recent discoveries are behind my newfound appreciation for this unloved bird:
  • Photographing starlings up close for The Lost Words project (see June Signal Smoke on the Lost Birds;
  • Reading Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book Mozart’s Starling, and
  • Discovering Spanish photographer Xavi Bou’s amazing work on murmurations.

Let’s start with photographing starlings. Seeing the morning light glimmer off a starling’s iridescent feathers, its jeweled breast shining in the morning sun, struck me; that’s a more attractive bird than the casual eye notices. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“One can make a case that they really shouldn’t be here – but starlings are really cool birds,” wrote Dr. Kevin McGowan of Cornell’s Ornithology Lab. “They are these beautiful iridescent creatures with purple and green across the chest and throat. And they have really cool songs because they throw in mimicry of other species.”

That mimicry – of which I was unaware – brings me to Haupt’s book, Mozart’s Starling. I’m not sure exactly how I came upon it, but it’s a wonderful book about Carmen, the starling she raised, and about Star, Mozart’s pet starling which he allegedly purchased because the starling was singing one of Mozart’s recent works.

Haupt writes:
“There, just inside, Mozart was greeted by a caged starling who jumped to the edge of his perch, cocked his head, and stared intently into the maestro’s eyes, chirping warmly…  then the starling did it again, he turned away from the composer pointed his bill skyward, fluffed his shimmering throat feathers and sang the theme from the allegretto in Mozart’s new composition…

Whether this occurred as described or not did not diminish my fondness for Star or Carmen, the author’s pet starling.

The last piece of my starling appreciation puzzle was artist Xavi Bou’s Ornitographe series. Hypnotic, stunning, mesmerizing are the best words I can conjure to describe Bou’s time-lapse work of starling murmurations. Rather than me describe it check it out yourself at https://vimeo.com/370007362 and http://www.xavibou.com/

Despite their bad reputation, these experiences have made me view starlings in a new light.