Blackbirds, starlings, grackles, cowbirds. They migrate together, and their arrival is one of the earliest signs of spring in the North Country. Not so long ago, I was thrilled to welcome them back to town. I even worried because they were late. I have heard the melodious burbling of the blackbirds as early as the first week of March in some years, and this year it was almost April before they flew in from the south.
It is always a joyous occasion when they arrive. Later on we may weary of them.
These traveling companions look and act alike.
In the suburb of metropolitan Detroit where I grew up, starlings were a terrible nuisance. I lived on Maple Road, aka 15 Mile Road. Directly across the road was Aspen Street, which was shaded by tall, stately trees. Elms, as it happened, not aspens. Starlings took to roosting in their branches. As twilight approached, the starlings would flock to the neighborhood, setting up a loud, garrulous conversation all up and down the block. How was your day? Oh, you know, the usual. Did you hear about the cat over on 14 Mile? The squawks, croaks, chatter and cries of so many birds drowned out normal human cocktail hour conversation. Starling droppings whitened sidewalks and windshields and anything else within range; the smell was pervasive. I remember being particularly put out that the birds ate the cherries from the Kinnisons' cherry tree before I was able to raid it myself.
All of us children in the area were called into active duty, armed with pots and pans, and sent to march down the street in an attempt to scare off the starlings. Technologically advanced adults - this was the 1950s - played recordings of starling alarm calls at full blast, as a kind of psychological warfare. None of this had any lasting affect, but it did help people to feel as if they were doing something to resist the starling takeover. It wasn't until the Dutch elm disease epidemic, when the trees that lined Aspen Street were chopped down, that the starlings finally grew discouraged and flew off to find a new gathering place.
My negative childhood experience with starlings may have colored my present attitude towards these birds and their cohorts. How else to explain my uncharacteristic response to grackle activity around the building where I now live?
First, let me explain that I am fond of some birds, like blue jays and crows, that many people consider too bossy and aggressive. I also tend to side with any animal that is protecting its young. Nevertheless, when grackles began scolding my cat Jupiter as he sat in the upstairs window, making their characteristic tsk-tsk-tsk warning croak, often described by birders as a "rusty gate hinge" sound, I immediately took Jupiter's side.
Go figure! I knew perfectly well that these birds were feeding nestlings, because I had seen them standing around in the apple tree just beyond the porch roof with worms in their beaks. I also knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jupiter is a marauding murderer. No ember of compassion for the tender and defenseless glows within his furry breast, I can assure you.
Still, when the grackles swooped at jupiter, dive bombing him in an effort to protect their babies, I was infuriated on his behalf, and croaked right back at them. I do a pretty good rusty gate hinge imitation.
I went on line to learn more about the pesky qualities of starlings and grackles. In a self-justifying effort to blame the victim, I will point out that a total of 100 starlings were introduced from Europe to Central Park in New York City in 1890 and 1891 as part of a program to bring all of Shakespeare's birds to the United States. By 1942, starlings had spread to the West Coast, and today, there is a starling for every man, woman and child in the United States.
You can have mine.
How do they come up with these statistics?
Also, grackles sometimes kill other birds at bird feeders, and plunder farmers' crops. Corn, mostly, but let's not get political.
Today, because they sensed I was writing this column, or perhaps because their young have fledged, the grackles are oddly silent. Jupiter can sit on the porch roof unharassed. Next year I am sure I will once again eagerly anticipate the birds' arrival in Keene Valley, just as if nothing had happened.
Have a good week.