Sunday, October 26, 2014

something about starlings

It wasn’t until I reached my office, safe from the crowds, that I knew. I sat in my chair, and stared at my lifeless companions with a new respect. I felt pleasantly betrayed. I had no idea they would elicit that reaction. When museum visitors saw them, they whispered, and pointed, and grabbed. It was as if I was wheeling around miniature feathered rock stars. People wanted a piece of them. And badly.

Starlings arrived in New York City in 1890. Sixty individuals were released in Central Park as part of an effort to populate the park with each bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. It was a wonderful, awful idea. Sentimentally driven, ecologically ignorant. Today there are ~200 million starlings in North America. This is not considered good. They are an invasive species; raiding crops, outcompeting native birds, and interfering with aircraft. Part of their success lies in their dietary flexibility. I once saw two starlings fighting over a piece of prosciutto on Columbus Ave. They were both holding it in their beaks. It was strung between them like a salty ribbon in an only-in-New-York Disney scene. They flapped, and pulled, and snapped. 

Sturnus vulgaris are, what I would consider, beautiful birds. In spring and summer, they sport a striking iridescent radiance, paired with a shock of yellow beak. In fall and winter, they take on modest brown plumage, flecked with little light colored “stars”. The origin of their name. They are ubiquitous, and decidedly unspecial by ornithological standards. From an ecological perspective, they are downright hated. Starlings are remarkable for their boldness, not for their rarity. They flourish in urban environments throughout the world; Europe, South Africa, New Zealand. Starlings still live in Central Park today, and all around the museum, aggressively pecking at the grass and forming peaceful groups with their inelegant associates, the pigeons.

My four starlings were dead. Taxidermied specimens for education and research. Clustered together in silence on my rolling cart. Not singing, or flying, or behaving. I was walking through the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. One of the most spectacular and impressive dinosaur exhibit halls in the world. But T. rex had nothing on my starlings. Nevermind that, evolutionarily, birds are avian dinosaurs, or that many starlings were alive and flourishing all over the museum lawn at that very moment. There is something about a specimen. The stillness. The oldness. The perceived specialness. But I think it was also a little about the birds too. One specimen was from winter, the other three summer. Spectacular in a kind of ordinary glory.