It’s 6:30 a.m. and the Starling family is already up. Three of the five juveniles are perched on a wire extending from the corner of our house. After haunting a hole under the roof for 6 weeks, the babies have fledged and they’re taking their cacaphony to the morning light. We’d known of their presence from the squarking and scrabbling noises within the wall, the sight of the two parents returning to the nest every 2 minutes with a squirming insect in their mouth. The adults have gone from healthy and plump to the bird version of new parents…harried, thin and disheveled. Right now they’re nowhere in sight and the three kids are at rest in that floppy way only baby animals are. Secure in the knowing that mom and dad will be back soon with food, without a care in the world, they are doing what most kids do. They’re playing.
The one closest to the house scooches down the wire towards the sibling in the middle. Everybody shuffles down and then the first one flutters up, leap frogging to the end. More scooching. Now the middle one is the first one and now it’s the last and then they scooch, flutter, leap frog, repeat. In between all this they take turns practicing singing. The first does an impression of an acorn woodpecker. The second mimics a stellar’s jay. The third cries out like a red tailed hawk. Their voices are tinny and sweet, and their calls float thinly into the air before them, but not much farther, and its clear they are only talking to each other. More impressions…a frog, a cellphone, a human whistle – the kind you do to get someone’s attention.
I witnessed all this from our kitchen window, waiting for the teakettle to boil. I first heard the stunning mating call of a starling outside our bathroom in San Francisco 11 years ago. Not just the loud chackerchackerchaker, but the quieter, intricate song performed for another starling. Full of glitches, clicks, mimicry and even human speech, their song is nothing short of mindblowing. Even Mozart thought so. But even though they are considered masterful, they are still mysterious, and little is known about the hows and whys of their “talking”. Curiosity trickles out of my mind and runs along my skin and for a moment I imagine a life if I’d taken a different road, dedicated to researching vocal appropriation in ornithology. But instead I take my cup of coffee outside and my questions pester after me like flies.
Do starlings learn their songs from their parents and environment, is it instinctual or a combination? Why do individual starlings prefer one call over another, some choosing to sound like frogs, others like flickers? Do they know they are mimicking at first, surprised when they hear the real McCoy? Is there rhyme and reason to why they insert sounds at different intervals in their songs? How is it evolutionarily adaptive to mimic?
What scientists do know is that sexual selection is strongly related to the starling’s song. The more varied, wide ranging and well sung the tune, the more attractive to the female. Considering that I’ve just spent 5 paragraphs boring you about bird song, I’d say they’re on to something. Despite the fact that I watched this particular pair of nesting starlings beat out the struggling blue birds for the spot under our roof, apart from the fact that they are an invasive non-native species numbering at over 200,000,000, regardless of it all…I adore starlings and consider them in my favorite top ten.
It was a weekend morning and Jeff and Fern were still asleep, a fact I relished while checking on the garden and sitting outside on our back porch. Another reason I am grateful for starlings is their prolific ability to hunt. After carefully protecting our garden beds from the bottom up with gopher wire, and running copper snail tape along the top edges of each one, my efforts to produce a garden has met a small, tiny, and numerous foe.
Sorry to gross you out. Usually preferring to never kill, I have become maniacal about trapping earwigs. Which, I related to a friend, is like trapping air molecules. For whatever reason, this year they are in biblical proportions.
They have decimated nearly everything. Seedlings in the evening become sad stumps by morning. We put in tomato plants and then took them right out again, stuffing them into pots until they are bigger. We put in delicata squash and a week later I removed their lacy and skeletal remains.
They’ve even gotten the seedlings on our windowsills and have since gone looking for other eats. Like crackers. My jars of herbs. My toothbrush. We can’t keep them out of the house since our barn-like construction is very, uh, permeable. Why are they so plentiful this year? More curiosity.
At first I grumbled about earwigs being jerks, but when Fern started mimicking me, I changed my tune. Actually honey, they aren’t jerks. They’re just little animals looking for a good source of food, and they’ve found it in our garden.
Not all is lost. We are set up to have a late summer abundance of 4 types of squash, sunflowers, tomatoes, green beans and in the fall…pumpkins!
I sat outback and continued listening to the birds. A phoebe. Crows. Goldfinches. Mourning Dove. Red-shouldered Hawk. I tracked the movement of the sun as it reached above the roof, the stand of eucalyptus. I made a game of Waiting for the Light. I can’t move from this spot until first light on the cosmos. Until then, how many birds? Which ones? Where?
The swallows swooped overhead, each successful feeding announced by chirping from the attic. The sun climbed. The tips of the tomatoes lit up. Then the spotlight moved over to the poppies. And then finally.
When we first moved in, despite the torrential rain and the boxes, I kept myself sane by planting improbability. Regardless of seeds that were 2-3 years old and probably not viable, I still placed my bets. Now the descendants of our back deck garden in the city are finding their incarnation in our new home.
At night, the recent full moon, the honeymoon of June, has made our bedroom luminescent. Even with eyes closed, the glow lingers, inner space illuminated. In my mind’s eye I see the Queen of Summer walking the fields behind our house, yarrow in her hair, her dress made out of the green dappled shade of the understory. I hear her footsteps on the path outside and my eyes fly open. She slyly glances in our window out of the corner of her eye and passes on. The farm dogs bark. I smile and go to sleep.
We spent Father’s Day at waterslides in the East Bay. As we passed through Oakland to pick up Leo, I was struck by the grit, the overwhelming activity, the life smashed together in discordance. Even after 18 years of an urban life, it has only taken 3 months for the cement around my soul to fall away. Part of me needed that cement, especially in my early adult hood. Heightened sensitivity to energy, earth voices, ecosystems in crisis, the play of death and rebirth in my own life…it all had become increasingly impossible to negotiate by the time I was 24. I need nature, but at that age I also needed a break. Now at midlife, I know how to navigate the deep and heavy places.
As we returned home that evening, the smell of dry grass floated in through the car window and I literally felt my nerves untwist. I murmured to Jeff It was really the right thing to do, moving up here. He murmured back Yes. It’s absolutely unquestionable.