Friday, January 25, 2008

No suet for you!

European Starling.

This suet’s not for you, Sturnus vulgaris. This Calorie-rich treat is an emergency Meal-Ready-to-Eat for our native winter birds, not crass intruders. Especially since I provide only the best in suet, with names such as Blueberry Twist, Cherry Crunch, and Peanut Butter Energy Mix, names so enticing that I am sometimes tempted to take a bite myself.

On a typical day, the first visitor to the suet cage is the song sparrow who has resided in the back yard since early fall. He arrives shortly after first light and clearly resents the pair of chickadees who come next. Birds have a sort of collective intelligence; they watch each other, and once a food source is found, everybody knows. More chickadees arrive. They have a fast, no-nonsense, snatch-and-fly technique. Then the dainty, egalitarian bushtits descend en masse to dine together, clustered on the cage, twittering softly. After a minute or so they peel off, one or two at a time, and vanish into the trees.

Bushtits. (Nothing is cuter, a fact.)

As suet and fruit fragments fall, ground-feeders arrive - a noisy, agitated spotted towhee, cooperative teams of dark-eyed juncos, and occasionally, a single, startlingly handsome varied thrush, which is like a robin, but flashier.

Spotted Towhee.

But sooner or later, they arrive, the boorish starlings in their speckled winter feathers. They are rabble rousers who fight with other species and among themselves. Once they are here, everyone else leaves.

" Mortimer!" (See below.)

The story of the starling is well known. Imported to North America from England by way of New York City. Why? Because Shakespeare mentioned it. In Henry IV, Hotspur declares, "I'll have a starling taught to say nothing but 'Mortimer,' and I'll give it to him to keep his anger still in motion." If you haven't read the play (me neither) the line out of context makes little sense. Apparently it is meant as a taunt.

For his love of Shakespeare and a desire to introduce into North America all birds mentioned by the Bard, a theatre fan named Eugene Schieffelin released 60 starlings into Central Park in 1890, and 40 more the following year. He was dropping a biological dirty bomb.

The starling spread rapidly. It is the most common bird in many North American cities and, perhaps, the least liked after the pigeon. Its successful colonization is due to its adaptability and hardiness as well as availability of small cavities in urban landscapes where it can nest. The starling reached Vancouver in the 1930s.

It is a small, dark, short-tailed bird. Breeding adults have yellow bills, iridescent feathers that shine purple and green and are flecked with white spots. In non-breeding season, starlings form large flocks capable of much noise and, well, let's just say you don't want to park your car under one of their roosts. On the ground, they walk, nay, swagger, rather than hop as do robins and other urban birds.

Is there anyone, short of a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk, who can send these louts on their way? Who can stare down a starling?

The stare.

The Northern Flicker to the rescue. Burly, brightly-coloured, and big-billed. Nothing, certainly not one or more measly starlings will keep him from his Blueberry Twist.

The cowardly retreat. Mortimer, indeed.

Flap softly, and carry a big beak.


BerryBird said...

We get flocks of grackles chasing away the other birds the same way the starlings do, but at least the grackles are native. Plus it usually only happens in the fall migration. I'm glad to hear flickers don't put up with any nonsense.

Emily said...

Haha, this is the exact chain of events at my suet feeder in late winter!