They come like apocalypse, like all ten plagues rolled in one, beating across the sky with an insidious drone, their voices harsh and metallic, cursing the land. Ten million strong, a flock that blots out the huge pale sinking sun, they descend into the trees with a protracted explosion of wings, black underfeathers swirling down like a corrupt snow.
—-A Bird in Hand, T.C. Boyle
I ride my bicycle through the morning cold, along the trail, on my way to work. The concrete is suddenly sullied, covered in a crumpled layer of bird shit. The dank ammoniacal stench pierces the chill still air and my snot stoppered nose. Overhead the black mass screeches, ignoring the brakes in the road and the bike below. I wait for a green light and watch the thick clusters of foul fowl – some finally flee, caterwauling about, off for the day.
The patch of busy road has a Wendy’s and a McDonald’s flanking a deserted grocery store. There are a few patches of green grass and some lonely copses of trees. Plus a great parallel picket of equidistant wires high in the sky – carrying who know what in its copper cores – but working fine as a gargantuan perch for a hundred thousand starlings every night.
I have no idea what attracts the birds to this spot, but it surely must not make the owners of the restaurants very happy. Not too many customers enjoy the pelting of guano they get walking from their cars, or the Hitchcockian fright the geometric arrangement of squawking birds stirs in the soul.
The light turns green and I ride on.
After work I fight the urge to fall asleep and surf the web for a second. Today’s viral video is one that a couple of women shot from their canoe. It is a murmuration of starlings.
The comments are all about the amazing sight and the wonderful bounty of nature… but I can’t help but thing of the filthy mass of starlings that I have to deal with on my bike ride.
I settle down to finish a book I’ve been working through for a while. It’s a collection of Short Stories by T.C. Boyle, Greasy Lake and Other Stories. A few weeks back, I read about half of them (very good BTW) and went off for some other fare and am now returning to finish the text off.
I come across an interesting two part story, A Bird in Hand.
The first section, subtitled 1980, concerns a farmer trying to get a murmuration of starlings to leave a stand of trees on his property, the only bit of woods that he has. He tries to scare them, to poison them, to hunt them down, but they are too stubborn. It ends with his defeat, with the sound of his chain saw.
The second part of the story is set a hundred years earlier. It is the true story of the American Acclimatization Society – a group from New York City that was dedicated to introducing every bird species mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings to the New World.
In Henry IV, Part 1, Hotspur says, “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him, to keep his anger still in motion.”
That single mention of “starling” by the bard inspired Eugene Schieffelin of the American Acclimatization Society to free a few hundred European Starlings in Central Park.
They now have become one of the most hated and damaging invasive species, causing the collapse of native bird populations, untold crop damage, and even the disruption of air traffic.
It did make for a good story, though.