One sunny spring afternoon when I was eleven, I rode my bike down the road to my grandparents’ farm. As I coasted down the laneway and entered the farmyard, I was startled by a sudden explosion of small, black birds erupting from every nook and cranny of one of the empty poultry barns. Intrigued, I hopped off of my bike and retreated to a nearby shed to await their return. One by one they reappeared, clinging momentarily to the barn wall for a wary look ’round before vanishing into their cavity nests. They were glossy and short-tailed and yellow-billed, and I had no idea what they were.
At school the next day, I took a trip down to the library to peruse their small collection of bird books, where I found a copy of the Golden Birds of North America. Taking it with me down to my bedroom that evening, I flipped through its crowded pages until I came across an illustration of a glossy black bird with a bright yellow bill — making the first of what would become many bird IDs from that trusty guide.
That’s right. My spark bird was a European Starling.
Starlings are not well loved here in North America. The first starlings were introduced in 1890 in New York’s Central Park, by an organization seeking to bring all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to the new world (or so the famed story goes). From that initial group of 60-100 individuals, the population exploded to over two hundred million in a single century, making them one of our most common birds — the quintessential ‘junk bird’ of North American birders. They are noisy and gregarious, building their messy nests in attics and barbecues and commonly congregating at enourmous urban roosts that plaster the vehicles below in droppings. As aggressive cavity nesters, they frequently out-compete native birds and have severely contributed to the decline of numerous passerine and woodpecker species.
And yet, I continue to have a strong affection for the birds. There are comparatively few species that can survive in urban environments, and fewer still that prosper. In a world where many creatures have been squeezed out of their ancestral homes, starlings have found their niche among us. Cheerful and adaptable, they can always be relied upon on even the most bitterly cold winter mornings to greet the sun with an exhuberant performance that most birds would save for warmer seasons. Their massive roosts are accompanied by astonishing displays of synchronous flight, thousands of birds moving as if they were one. And, years later, I still fondly remember them as the species that sparked what would become a lifelong interest in birdwatching.
Oh, and I never did return that Golden field guide.