By Keith Michael
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch…
From If, Rudyard Kipling
Probably my favorite story to tell about birds in New York (and there are so many to choose from) is about a 19th century Bronx pharmacist, Eugene Schieffelin, then chairman of the American Acclimatization Society, an organization devoted to introducing the beloved flora and fauna of Europe to North America. (Today we scream in unison: “What!?) It is still debated whether his release of 100 Starlings in Central Park in 1890 and 1891 had anything to do with The Bard’s line in Henry IV, Part 1 when Hotspur considers a dandy plan for driving The King crazy might be to have a Starling repeat the name of Hotspur’s brother-in-law Mortimer, ad infinitum: “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him, to keep his anger still in motion.” Still, whenever I walk by the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park with friends (who haven’t heard the tale before, and probably to a few who have) I embellish the facts of the ceremonial release—next time I may add a marching band, engraved programs, and neat rows of chairs decorously filled with egret-feather-adorned spectators to the festivities!
It’s a moist Tuesday evening. Millie is flattened at my feet displaying her well-bred corgi herding prowess: nose to toes, eyes shut tight, tailless rump occasionally rippling in a dream world of corralling errant kibble on the carpet. Even through the screen in the open window, above the rain pit-a-pattering on the patio, I can hear the familiar squeaky-door whistles, trills, clicks and pops of a Starling family huddled somewhere under the eaves, likewise waiting out this steady July drenching. They are just one of the tens of millions of Starling families now contentedly snuggling in for the night coast to coast.
Starlings (stateside they are officially called Common or European Starling whereas in Europe just “Starling” is quite enough) are blunt iridescent black birds which in fresh winter plumage are lustrously spotted. Over the arduous summer season, the spots wear off the feathers and the birds become overall duller. The youngsters are a satisfying mouse-gray, and all of the clan walk with a distinctive bobble-headed gait as they search for bugs and seeds. (Okay, I just got distracted by watching YouTube videos of Starling murmurations—that’s what prodigious bunches of Starlings flying together are called. There aren’t enough of them in the West Village for these spectacular aerial displays, but I kind of wish there were. Shh.)
Re-crossing my legs was just enough to annoy Millie. She’s gotten up, paused possibly to listen whether it was still raining, circled once and flumped back down with her back to me—obviously choreographed distain.
Let’s say that Starlings don’t make the tidiest nests, but at least since they build them in holes rather than on an open branch like a Robin, Cardinal or Blue Jay, mostly we don’t see their messy collection of sticks and grass. Small cracks in cornices or chinks in old brickwork are perfect for them to squeeze through for protection from the weather (like tonight).
Neighborhood House Sparrows and House Finches “belong” elsewhere, Rock Doves were brought here long ago for food and by fanciers, the decorative Mute Swan was imported to North America because it was decorative, and the ancestors of the gray-headed green Monk Parakeets contentedly colonizing Brooklyn and Queens were from the Andes in South America. Starlings have walked (and sung) with Kings and yet they are now one of our most common birds on the street (and possibly THE most numerous bird on the continent). New York has always been a place where cultures flock together.
I’m only hearing the gurgling of water in the downspouts now, and a passing car splashing through puddles on the cobblestones. “Millie, a walk?” She looks up, not convinced that the rain has stopped and that it is, once again, safe to go out.
For more information about summer nature walks, photographs or books visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.