Thursday, November 20, 2014

The First Bird

They arrived on a Wednesday, in a box labeled honey baked ham. I rushed around teaching, meeting, and answering emails. The box sat. I knew what was inside, but I needed time to open it. Time to carefully inspect the cold little bodies inside. Time to respect their terminated lives. And I wanted to be alone with them.

The box felt heavy and damp as I carried it. It was 12:14pm when I arrived in the lab to unpack my precious frozen gift. My hands trembled. I have been dreaming of their nuanced intraspecific diversity for many months. Subtle differences between individuals of the same species will tell us something new. It’s different than the great variation we see between wildly divergent species. It’s quieter. Newer.

I pulled through two tightly knotted plastic bags. There they were. In a heap, not a flock. In a pile, not a murmuration. One man’s trash. I lifted the first bird. It’s neck was crooked, it’s eyes gently closed. Dignified, even in death. Tawny brown head, it was a juvenile in its last autumn plumage. I set it down in the afternoon sun. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

the bird that isn’t a bird

“They are not considered birds, they are not considered birds”, the ornithologist repeated. They are exempt from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You don’t need a permit to kill them. According to the IUCN Invasive Species Specialist Group, they are one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world. European starlings in North America are reviled for their ecological, agricultural, and aeronautic troublemaking.

In 1960, a flock of ~20,000 starlings caused one of the worst airplane bird strikes in history. During take-off the birds were ingested into the engine, causing power loss, and eventually a sideways crash. Sixty-two people were killed. Starlings wreak havoc on farms. They eat the most proteinaceous plant parts, meant for cows, which effects the quality of milk production. Their guano can transmit diseases such as histoplasmosis and E.coli. They also compete with native birds for nesting sites. 

Wildlife control agencies end the lives of millions of starlings every year. These birds are killed creatively. They are trapped, gassed, poisoned, their cervical vertebrae dislocated. In 1890, when starlings first arrived in North America, their were no commercial airplanes, and many fewer cows. I wonder when they were first recognized as problematic? Perhaps not at the outset, allowing them time and space to properly invade. 

All of this is to say, we shouldn’t hate these birds. But we should be cautious not to love them either. No point in getting carried away about their beauty, gregarious nature, or skills of mimicry. That is the type of sentimental thinking that launched this invasion. But, from an evolutionary perspective, I think we have something serious to learn from our unwelcome guests. Their morphological, behavioral, and dietary adaptations are noteworthy. Their population expansion nothing short of astonishing. So, to understand some central concepts in evolutionary biology—variation within species, adaptation to novel environments, and reproductive success—it’s fitting that we turn to the starlings. Even stripped of the honor of being called a bird, and despised for legitimate reasons, the starling still has scientific stories to tell.