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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A good day at the feeders

When I woke to snow this morning, one of my first thoughts was "The juncos left too soon." I'd not seen any of the slate-gray charmers for several days and had assumed that our warm spell had driven them back to the frozen north. Then, barely in my peripheral vision, a junco hopped under a rhododendron. They're still around--somewhere.

The usual suspects were present in their usual numbers: mourning doves, sparrows, house finches, starlings (of course), grackles, cardinals, and chickadees, along with a blue jay in the hemlock. But something had Mittsy the Mutant Cat crouched in the plant window, emitting the pitiful noises that seem to mean "Please let me go out and kill something." Looking over her shoulder, I saw that a chipmunk had discovered an entire ear of squirrel corn fallen onto the ground and was taking serious advantage of this (literal) windfall: it was chewing faster than I had ever seen anything chew, its little cheeks becoming fuller than I'd known was possible. Something--me, Mittsy, a hawk, who knows--startled the little rodent, so it gave the Chipmunk Alarm Tail Shake and disappeared. But it was a good day at the feeders.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Today I want to write about starlings. I’ve never been a big fan of the birds: they’re not native (though my first husband, who was a sociologist, used to argue that point since they’re at least as native as Euro-Americans are), they’re aggressive, they’re messy, and they exist in such numbers as to have caused a decline in other cavity-nesting bird species. They’ve caused problems with airplanes flying into their huge flocks (though they would probably say that airplanes cause problems for starlings). They’re major agricultural pests, consuming quantities of grain appropriate to their numbers, estimated at more than 200 million in the US alone. Yes, starlings are easy to dislike, and our own US Department of Agriculture and certain state agricultural services gas around a million of them a year, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Sometimes, though, I get a real surge of affection for the fat little things. In winter plumage, they’re actually quite lovely, glossy black overlaid with all those white spots, and that unmistakable bright yellow bill. They look star-spangled, fully deserving of their name. The way they walk, hunched over and jabbing their bills into the soil, makes me laugh. Even their behavior, when they show up in noisy, jostling mobs, can be endearing, reminding me of the roomfuls of seventeen-year-old boys I’ve taught at an applied technology center. Are they really any worse, or more of an ecological blight, than American teenagers?

Probably not (and I don’t want to get into a meditation on the human propensity for destructive behavior—we know all about it), and starlings have actually begun to fit positively into certain ecological niches. Their habit of mobbing hawks and other predators protects other songbird species from predation (though it doesn’t do much for the hawks). In the spirit of fair play, starlings themselves have become a favored food item for peregrine falcons, now returning from the brink of extinction, partially because of plentiful food sources. In terms of the ecology of my yard, starlings enthusiastically consume the eastern tent caterpillar, one of the few lepidoptera species I would like to see less of.

Besides, can we blame a bird for taking advantage of the situation that we created?