LOCAL VIEW –Snarling Starling–

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A starling has nested in the outlet for the drier at our Childcare. It is able to do so because we only use the drier to dry snowsuits, and the snow is at long last gone. The children are fascinated by the process of building a nest, and now by the hoarse, creaky cries of the hidden chicks. I point out things the kids might miss, such as the fact the mother bird carries away a “dirty diaper” (fecal sack) to keep the nest clean, and also that starlings are related to myna birds, and part of their song includes noises they hear and copy. Few starlings live past age five, but a few can live over a decade, and the older they get the more elaborate their songs get, and the males with the most elaborate songs attract mates first, and have better success at breeding.

There may be a poem in that.

My mind can wander strange places, as I watch starlings, including landscapes I don’t tell the children about.

I have always had ambiguous feelings towards starlings. I blame my big sister, who had an uncanny ability to lay brutal guilt-trips, and my father, who could be brutal in his environmentalist zeal.

An example of my big sister’s power involved my butterfly collection. She did not approve of me killing beautiful bugs, but I persisted in collecting specimens, out of her view. However I could never catch a tiger swallowtail, despite hunting them with my net for several boyhood summers. (This is quite unlike my middle-son, who to my amazement would walk up to a tiger swallowtail on a flower, as a toddler, and gently cup it in his hands, and then open his hands to observe it briefly, before it winged away.) I had no such luck, as a boy. Perhaps the butterflies deduced my evil intent. I could spot a tiger swallowtail a hundred yards away, and then I’d creep up on the insect with agonizing slowness, raise my net, and it would always flit away. However, after countless failures, three summers later I at long last netted one, and walked into the house expecting some sort of ticker tape parade.  I proudly placed my catch on the kitchen table, in a jar that had holes in the lid. My sister arrived at an instantaneous decision. Without hesitating she took the jar to the front porch, removed the lid, and set my captive free. Then her blue eyes coldly  looked down her long nose at me, and she just dared me to object.

I confess I wanted to break her nose, but she was a foot taller and I knew that I’d likely lose any brawl I began.  Also she was much smarter, because she was four years older, so I knew I’d lose any argument. An example of this follows:

She liked cats, and had a tuxedo cat named James Bond, but I liked birds, and was attempting to raise a featherless chimney swift chick that had fallen out of its nest and wound up in our fireplace. Everyone told me it was doomed to die, but I was on vacation and had few chores and empty hours to fill, and decided to dedicated that part of my boyhood summer to feeding the chick every time it cried. I named it “Squawk”, and fed it tiny balls of rolled up bread mixed with the yoke of an egg. To everyone’s astonishment, the chick didn’t die, and began to grow pin feathers. But then my sister’s stupid cat decided to get into the act. When I had Squawk out for a feeding, and went into the kitchen for egg yoke and bread, James Bond leaped up on the table and began lashing at the defenseless baby bird with his wicked claws. With a scream I attacked the cat, which fled to my sister, who held it in her arms, and both regarded me smugly. My sister was very disapproving when I used the worst word I knew in 1964 on her cat. (In case you’re interested, the word was “finky”.) Her blue eyes then looked down her long nose and she devastated me with a massive guilt trip. She said, “Its all your fault. You should have never left your bird where a cat could get at it.”

I then desperately attempted to nurse Squawk back to health, but the chick had a bad gash on the back of its head. It died two days later, liberated from pain on Independence Day. I had even sacrificed going to see fireworks to tend to my chick, and that is darn hard for a boy to do. But I did leave the chick to climb up a hemlock in the back yard to see if I could glimpse the fireworks I could hear thudding in the distance, and when I climbed back down and returned to Squawk, I saw he had died. I felt horrible guilt, and have never cared all that much for fireworks ever since.

It did seem puzzling to me that my sister had no pity for Squawk, and cared so much for James Bond, as my grandmother and father both loved birds and hated cats. What was even odder was that earlier she scarred my boyhood with a spectacular scene she made in the defense of a baby bird.

This earlier event occurred because my father had a great love of bluebirds. We never saw any, because an ice-storm had reduced the population, though they had been common in New England during my Dad’s boyhood. Ordinarily their reduced population would have slowly recovered, however their nesting sites were taken over by “invasive species”, especially English sparrows and starlings. Therefore, to help bluebirds, my father devised bird houses with entrances too small for starlings to enter. English sparrows were smaller and could enter, but when my father became aware an “illegal alien” had moved in, he’d go to the bird house and, because he had added a hinged trapdoor to the bottom of the birdhouse, he could abort the nesting,  by removing the nesting materials, or the eggs, or, if he was late, the baby chicks.

It was an occasion when he was late that my sister threw her fit.  Dad worked too hard at the hospital, but finally had a May evening to potter about the yard, and my sister and I were delighted to see him and to have the chance to tag along. Or we were delighted until he removed the peeping English sparrow chicks from the birdhouse. Apparently my sister didn’t mind that bluebirds were homeless. All she could see was that my father was going to abort defenseless chicks, and she flung herself at my father with all the passion of Pocahontas defending John Smith. “Nooo! Nooooooo!” she screamed, but he went right ahead and crushed the English sparrow chicks, for the sake of bluebirds that we never saw.

At that point I found myself slowly backing away. My sister was too short to look down her nose at Dad, but her blue eyes were baleful, and his identical blue eyes looked down an identical nose, and I suppressed a scream. I think I was gifted with a sense of prophesy, and could see that someday psychologists would make a lot of money off those two.

Not that therapy did the slightest bit of good. My father went right on rubbing my sister’s fur the wrong way, and my sister  went right on rubbing my father’s fur the wrong way. I could give humorous examples that happened when he was over eighty, but this post is suppose to be about starlings.

What I deduced, as a boy, was that I had best figure out things for myself, because both my father and sister were too busy with their own politics to be kind to me. And what I deduced was that starlings might not be unmitigated evil.

I deduced this because another “invasive species” my father sought to eradicate was the Japanese beetle. Some brainless liberal introduced them to the USA because “they are pretty.” However my father loved flower gardens and lush lawns, but Japanese Beetle grubs destroyed lawns, and destroyed his flowers, and therefore part of my boyhood involved crushing beetles the same way he crushed English sparrow chicks. I kept score, and one summer I killed over a thousand beetles on flowers, but I couldn’t help but notice I didn’t kill a single grub in the lawn. What could kill such grubs? It was a “eureka” moment when I realized the chief predator was starlings.

Starlings could be “good guys”.

This was a relief to me, for, if you delete the sight chance I might be 1/16th Native American, then I too was, and am,  an “invasive species”. So what if my family tree shows four ancestors on the Mayflower? Those Pilgrims were an “invasive species”,  and even if they have lived here four hundred years, my sister felt we still should be ashamed and feel as guilty as all get out. I liked Indians a lot, and actually wanted to quit school and go into the woods and “be an Indian”. I also felt pretty bad about how they were treated, and my sister even tells a tale of stopping at the door to my room, and peeking in, and seeing me on my knees praying that Indians be treated better. But I also knew that for the first two hundred years my ancestors were in New England the Indians spent a great deal of time planning and plotting genocide, and wanted to crush my ancestors like Japanese beetles.

At age eleven I was given understanding that put me way ahead of the curve. And I think my father and sister were also ahead of the curve, for they were debating the idea of “illegal aliens” nearly a half century before it became a world-wide issue. Only now are some starting to say what my father suffered for saying. Only now are some starting to say what my sister suffered for saying. But nobody listens to me.

And what do I say? Starlings can be good guys. And your worth is not determined by what you look like or where you come from, but rather by what you do.

Some brainless liberal introduced starlings to the USA because they wanted birds that appear in Shakespeare’s writing out their American window. Those 40 birds now number in the millions. I think that, if they admired Shakespeare so much, they instead should have attempted a sonnet.

Back and forth; back and forth; mother starling
Never stops. Shrill, her fledglings’ crying maws
Gape for more and more. But you, my darling,
Are seldom so demanding, and do pause
To weigh the greenness of the lush, swift spring.
Back and forth; what quick industry bird brains
Display, without wages, without thinking
Of going on strike like a man complaining
He needs vacations. But you, now winking,
Say nothing. Back and forth; does that bird
Ever sulk, and gripe fledglings aren’t thankful?
No. Absurd’s her way to end the day. I’ve heard
Her singing! What gives? I want a tankful
Of whatever she’s drinking. You, darling?
You watch the spring and watch me watch the starling.

LOCAL VIEW —Christmas Bluebirds—

We are experiencing a truly kindly spell of late December weather, if you are an old coot like me, and have grown less fond of cold with time.

Not that I can’t remember being young and hot, and walking with a girl I was trying not to fall in love with, (and failing), and being warm through and through, though it was so cold the snow on the road squeaked as we walked over it. Also I can remember being desperate for snow, for I was running a lunch-counter at a cross-country ski area. However those are memories, and the reality is the present, and the Christmas present was mildness for an old coot, this year

What was really remarkable was a finger of warmth that reached the tops of the hills where I lived, but not the valleys. Indeed it was 43° atop Mount Washington, at 6000 feet, and only 40° at sea-level at the coast at Portsmouth. It was 39° in the Merrimack River Valley at Manchester 40 miles to our east, and 38° close to the Connecticut River in Keene 40 miles to our west, while here temperatures spiked up to near 60°. (57° in Jaffrey, 7 miles to our west.)

You can dimly see the finger of warmth in this temperature map, poking up into south-central New Hampshire (and also all the way north to Burlington, Vermont):

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On Christmas morning the sun came out and the breeze felt like April’s. Because we had the stoves going before the warmth came north, it was actually hot in the old house. I stepped out onto the porch and instantly remembered a Christmas back in my youth (1965?) when it was so mild I was running around outside flying a new toy helicopter barefoot.  I dedcided to stay outside to enjoy the mildness, figuring it wouldn’t last, as a front had come through to bring us our sunshine and clearing.

Temperatures did drop a little, but not much, and I could do my chores without gloves or a jacket.  My middle son was out with bird-watching gear, and announced by cell phone that a small gang of bluebirds, and a male and female cardinal, were by the house. I hurried, but didn’t see them, yet could hear them off in the distance, which seemed very evocative and symbolic of something just beyond my ken. (My son’s pictures:)

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There was something so summery about bluebirds and cardinals being about on Christmas morning that I decided it must be my Christmas miracle this year, and a auspicious sign.

Then I sat back to wait for the cold to return, as it surely must. A warm wave in the winter is like the water drawing down on a beach; you know the water draws back further for the bigger waves. However though the cold has rushed down to chill western cities like Denver, it is taking its time coming east: (The first map shows our Christmas storm passing well north, with us on the southern mild side, and the second map shows two days later, with the east still spared the arctic air plunging into the west.) (Click to enlarge.)

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The radar map shows snow along the battle lines between the cold west and the warm east:

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This battle line could brew up some big storms, as it works its way east, before the cold air eventually engulfs the entire USA. However for the moment we get a pause, a time of peace. The wind has died and the winter sun shines. Bluebirds are about. Obviously it is time for a sonnet.

I awoke to how wonderfully fashioned
Is a winter day, though the low sun is weak.
 
Faintly flavored, as when tea is rationed
And one sips a thin cup, one should not speak
Or one may miss the taste.   The breathless air
Is hushed; the sole birdsong is over a near
Hilltop, and is the scratchy cry of a rare
Christmas bluebird: Very faint; very clear.
 
I tell my noisy brain to be quiet.
I’m tired of its racket, and how it squints
At silence like bats in sunshine.
 
                                                    “Try it,”
Speaks the silence. “See My fingerprints
On every bough; with each breath you draw
See it takes no thought to wander in My awe.”