MARTHA SEZ: ‘I don’t recall the starlings ever doing imitations, but they were pesky’
“Morning has broken, like the first morning
“Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird”
— Cat Stevens, lyrics “Morning Has Broken”
Maybe, as Cat Stevens lyricized — “Blackbird has spoken like the first bird” — but these days blackbirds have a lot more to say, what with all the car alarms, sirens, cellphones and traffic noises they like to imitate.
According to some ornithologists, male blackbirds, as well as crows, thrashers, catbirds, mockingbirds and European starlings, mimic sounds of all kinds, including the calls of hawks and other birds and even frogs, in order to attract female mates.
I wonder why these imitations would attract females. Isn’t the point to attract a mate of your own species? And wouldn’t it be risky for a blackbird to go around doing hawk imitations? He might attract a female hawk instead of a female blackbird, and then he’d be sorry.
YouTube videos show blackbirds producing startlingly accurate imitations of ambulance and police sirens.
“Oh, I’m sorry, officer, I did hear your siren, but I assumed it was a blackbird.”
I live near the Keene Valley Neighborhood House, and I could swear that there is a bird that imitates the sound of the door alarm there. At first I thought “What a funny bird call! I wonder what kind of bird that is?” Then I noticed that it sounds just like the alarm that goes off when the door is opened, with the addition of a few squawks and chirps. I keep looking up into the branches of nearby trees to see whether there really is a bird up there making the noise, but so far with no luck.
According to the “Mirror,” a British news publication, a family who live near a hospital in Somerset are bothered by a blackbird that “perfectly mimics the noise of passing ambulances.”
“The creature,” they complain, “sits in a tree in the back garden or on the roof of their house” and keeps at it all day. The blackbird also imitates a car alarm and the cell phone ring tone of one of the family members.
According to the “Daily Mail,” another British newspaper, “Mr. Dudley, of the British Ornithologists Union, said: ‘In 20 years I’ve only ever seen one other blackbird which could do this (mimic), so it is very unusual. Starlings are well-known mimics and you can hear them imitating car alarms and other mechanical sounds all the time. Song thrushes also do it quite often. Blackbirds have the ability to mimic but they rarely use it. This one is almost certainly using it to attract a female mate, and using unusual sounds to put off other males.”
When I was a child growing up in a suburb of Detroit, starlings used to congregate every evening in the elm trees that lined Aspen street, across 15 Mile Road from our house. Their droppings and feathers littered the sidewalks beneath the great trees, and the birds were loud and boisterous, jumping around in the branches and chattering. The smell was recognizable and unpleasant. I don’t recall the starlings ever doing imitations, but they were pesky. People in the neighborhood paraded up and down the street, banging pots and pans and even played tape recordings of starlings in distress, but I don’t think they were ever rid of them until the spread of Dutch Elm disease caused the town to cut down and destroy all of the elm trees.
Starlings don’t overpopulate Adirondack neighborhoods, at least as far as I know. Around this time of year, beginning as early as August, they migrate South, creating problems in West Palm Beach, where they are considered unruly and invasive.
The European starling is the common starling, ubiquitous in North America. In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin, a New York pharmaceutical manufacturer, released 100 imported European starlings in Central Park. His aim was to introduce every bird mentioned by William Shakespeare in his works to the United States. Most of the birds did not thrive in the New World, but the starling did just fine, and today there are about 150 million starlings in the United States, all of them descendants of those original 100.
In Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part 1,” Hotspur is planning to drive King Henry crazy by letting a starling endlessly repeat the name of Hotspur’s brother-in-law Mortimer: “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him, to keep his anger still in motion,” Hotspur says.
Have a good week.
(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the News for more than 20 years.)