30 April 2012

Bird Watching

A friend in the Midwest sent a message recently saying, "The whippoorwills have returned after five years' absence.  I wonder why."  I had to look up whippoorwills in order to respond.  I found that whippoorwills are goatsuckers and in more than one culture they're a death omen, so I wrote back: "Death omen?"  I was at my job, and there was a mountain of e-mails to climb, so I sent off the message just like that: whippoorwills = death omen.  He responded saying he didn't take it that way; he was happy they'd come back, though he didn't know why they left, nor why they returned.  He said, "Hope springs eternal."

I haven't a clue if the whippoorwill has ever been to Brooklyn, nor if it's back.  I know so little about birds, other than the fact that I'm tired of seeing little silhouettes of them on tote bags.

For several mornings now I've been watching a couple of birds that I learned are American Starlings.  They collect dry grass from a swatch of earth surrounded by four brick walls behind my building.  It isn't a backyard really, but it does attract birds not only because there's signs of green life there, but also because there exist defunct clotheslines and robust knots of cable wire that lunge between buildings.

I don't know if I'm watching the same starlings every day, for as I've said I don't have an eye for birds.  What I see is their carrying strands of golden flint that droop from their beaks at a horizontal; I watch their jerky motions, how one seems to be a more fastidious worker than the other.  They're black mostly, and not small.  They flutter straight upwards from the ground as if eyelids batting, a vertical ascent that looks tiresome and awkward.  They stop to rest upon the dangling clumps of wire, swinging to and fro for a minute or two, or they flap to the fire escape right in front of my window to perch for a moment upon the black glossy metal that's been painted so many times it looks itself to be dripping.

Sometimes the grass strands fall from the birds' beaks but they don't seem to notice.  I just stand there with my cup of coffee, avoiding my early morning work of building scenes.  It's as if we're all there taking a break, enjoying the view.  And the starlings continue on with their work in the general direction of the building next to mine, to the cement rooftop there.  They fly out of sight to build a nest that I am unable to see, and then they come back empty-beaked, ready to keep building.  I am quick to believe in death omens, but here in Brooklyn as the sun barely makes its way above to shine once again upon concrete, the universe is reminding me that yes, of course, hope does spring eternal.

2 comments:

Jason said...

I love that you are enjoying watching birds and inspired to submit what seems a proper death omen, albeit retrospective in essence, to tack on your nice Blog. Many people don't realize that those exotic European Starlings you see in Brooklyn (and all across North America for that matter) are also an object of great disdain, to the point of being an open season target of the more radical bird lover, and a real symbol of death to some of their native feathered Class. I lifted the following text from wikipedia because it is a decent summary of a complicated situation. I imagine Shakespeare the environmentalist rolling over in his grave when he learned that something so poorly considered and ultimately symbolic of human ignorance was perpetrated in his name. Enjoy!

After two failed attempts[41], about 60 European starlings were released into New York’s Central Park in 1890 by Eugene Schieffelin. He was president of the infamous American Acclimatization Society which tried to introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare to North America in 1890.[42] The offspring of the original 60 starlings have spread across the continental United States, northward to southern Canada and Alaska, and southward into Central America. There are now an estimated 150 million starlings in the United States [43] and 200 million in North America[4].

In 1889 and 1892, the Portland Song Bird Club released 35 pairs of starlings in Portland, Oregon. These birds established themselves, but then disappeared in 1901 or 1902. The next sighting of a starling in the Pacific Northwest was not until the mid 1940s. Presumably these birds could be genetically linked to the 1890 Central Park introduction.[44]

It is difficult to reach a consensus on starlings. Some value the species for their creative adaptiveness and their odd beauty. Many hold a strong dislike of starlings because of their aggressive behavior at feeders and nesting sites, and their overwhelming flocks and roosting habits. There is only one thing on which agreement can be reached regarding starlings—they are ubiquitous.[45]

Being an introduced species European starlings are exempt from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.[46] Starlings are among the worst nuisance species in North America. The birds travel in enormous flocks; pose danger to air travel; disrupt farms; displace native birds; and roost on city blocks. Corrosive droppings on structures cause hundreds of millions of dollars of yearly damage. In 2008 the U.S. government poisoned, shot or trapped 1.7 million, the most of any nuisance species.[47]
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Sarah Dohrmann said...

Thanks, Jason! As it turns out, starlings are quite the conversation piece.

A friend of mine says she's obsessed with them and their history, too. She sent me these links:

http://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/01/opinion/100-years-of-the-starling.html

http://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/how-starlings-got-their-start-in-central-park/

And hey, thanks for reading my blog!

Sarah