I write to you from Arapahoe, Ute, and Cheyenne land. I am interested in learning about the different animals that live in the place where I was born. Before we start with today’s animal, I want to emphasize that biological classification as understood by western society has its roots in racism, sexism, and transphobia – here’s a good explainer about why.
Have you heard of Acclimatization Societies? I had not until I was reading about today’s animal, an invasive species in Colorado – the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). European Starlings are very smart birds who thrive in human spaces, despite aggressive campaigns to eliminate them during the 20th and 21st centuries, including the development of a special Starlings-only poison called Starlicide. Their global population is around 330 million, of which 200 million or so live in North America, ranging as far north as Alaska and the Yukon Territory and as far south as the Yucatan. That number is remarkable considering that it began from a population of 60 released in Central Park in 1890.
The Central Park release was done by Eugene Schieffelin, president of the American Acclimatization Society. Acclimatization Societies sprang up throughout colonized areas – first in French Algeria, then throughout the Anglosphere – as a way for settlers to bring European animals into the colonized landscape. This was often done explicitly as a way to, in their opinion, upgrade the flora and fauna of the area. For example, the genocidal villain Cecil Rhodes introduced the European Starling, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, and Grey Squirrel into South Africa to “improve” the environment. In Australia and New Zealand, societies with similar ideas introduced rabbits, stoats, and also starlings, often with disastrous consequences for native wildlife. Eugene Schieffelin released the starlings in New York so that North America could have one of every bird mentioned by Shakespeare (not sure if he ever attempted to introduce an ostrich, who Shakespeare includes in Henry VI Part 1, probably after seeing the bird in a menagerie at the Tower of London).
It is not the starlings’ fault, but they can take nest sites away from native birds here and sometimes act as brood parasites. Their eggs hatch early in the season, giving them a competitive advantage for food over later-hatching native species. Colonial ideas like those of the Acclimatization Societies always remind me of The Great Gatsby: “They were careless people… - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” While the early 20th century development of ecology as a formalized field of study led to widespread recognition of the dangers of invasive species, it feels like even a modicum of thought or care for the native species of colonized areas could have prevented these introductions.
ANYWAY. European starlings are here to stay in North America, and they are fascinating birds who are sadly now caught up in extermination efforts because of their introduction by settlers. They have beautiful feathers that when newly grown have white tips which then wear away by spring, leaving a dark, glossy, iridescent look. The males are excellent mimics of the songs of other birds. Starlings have a rare (among birds) adaptation to their jaw and eye placement so that they can probe the ground and snap open their jaws in an act known as “gaping” while looking directly at it seeking insects.
They are social and gregarious birds who gather by the thousands in flocks known as murmurations. All flocks of birds lack a leader, with movement governed collectively, but the sheer number of birds that can be in a Starling flock make this style of movement remarkable. Here’s a description:
“When one starling changes direction or speed, each of the other birds in the flock responds to the change, and they do so nearly simultaneously regardless of the size of the flock. In essence, information moves across the flock very quickly and with nearly no degradation. The researchers describe it as a high signal-to-noise ratio.
This scale-free correlation allows starlings to greatly enhance what the researchers call “effective perceptive range,” which is another way of saying that a starling on one side of the flock can respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock—a huge benefit for a starling trying to avoid a falcon.”
Recent research led by George Young at Princeton (described in the link above) shows that each Starling in a flock communicates its movements to its seven nearest neighbors almost instantaneously, and that those movements pass through the entire murmuration similar to a game of telephone (but with a much higher accuracy rate).
“Starlings have been popular pets for centuries. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had one for a few years in the 1780s, and the bird reportedly was able to whistle the opening theme of the third movement of the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K.543. According to legend, when the bird died, Mozart buried it in his backyard in a ceremony that included veiled mourners, hymns and the recitation of a poem the composer had written.”