Starlings are exceedingly common black speckled birds with a surprisingly Quixotic past. So familiar and ubiquitous are these little shiny birds that their perceived banality is actually part of their name, but the inconceivably romantic (and ecologically irresponsible) history of the “Common Starling” in the United States is far from ordinary.
Initially only indigenous to Europe, the “European” Starling was introduced to North America in 1890 by a small group of well-meaning, yet seriously misguided Shakespeare fanatics calling themselves the American Acclimatization Society. The Society was determined that every bird mentioned in any and all of the Bard’s plays (there are over 600 avian species mentioned) should live and thrive here in the US. In 1890, they released about eighty Starlings in New York’s Central Park. By the 1950’s the Starling was well entrenched and found clear across America. Today, there are an estimated 200 million Starlings wreaking arguable havoc in North America, all descended from those original eighty poetic pioneers- and all thanks to a fleeting reference in Henry IV.
There is a highway in Seekonk, Massachusetts called Route 6 which is lined with every palatable form of corporate commerce that we cherish in this country. A giant Target flanks a TJMaxx which shares space with a Best Buy and Kohl’s, down the road is Bed Bath and Beyond, Walmart, Pet Co. and on and on… Every sizable town or district in America has their own Route 6. Some newer parts of our country are veritably defined by their strip mall habitats, but here in New England, they are generally shoved out to the suburbs, a result of centuries-old settlements with very little space or tolerance for modern development. (Don’t get me wrong, we still want our Sam’s Club and Cost Co., just not within the historic city limits.)
Several years ago, I happened to be driving down this main drag of mass consumption at sunset when I saw what at looked like a biblical style plague of winged creatures. Tens of thousands of squat little black birds were perched side by side on phone lines, roofs, street lamps and poles-every single viable landing spot- for at least half a mile. Their wavy, synchronous flight formations literally darkened the sky as they pushed and pulled as one, swaying up and down, back and forth, in and out before lining up and jostling for space on their temporary roosts. They chattered and preened until the color drained from the sky, apparently signaling an exit to the real roost spot in the surrounding marsh land where they spend the night. It was incredibly odd to see such a transcendent and timeless natural display amidst such artificial modernism. I was intrigued.
In early 2013, I began photographing the Starlings on a semi-daily basis. It’s hard. I get there early and wait and wait and wait. One bird flies in and lands somewhere, maybe on a telephone wire over Walmart, then another and another until there are a dozen or so birds hanging out. I wait. Is this it or will more come? Maybe they have other agendas today, maybe they’ve moved on. Often fifteen or more minutes go by with the sun slowly seeping into the marshlands beyond the strip. Then suddenly something moves in the corner of my eye and the sky seems to be shifting. Hundreds and then thousands of little black birds suddenly show up in less than 5 minutes. They glide in and land on the telephone wire, causing the line and it’s squatters to bounce and ripple. The birds chatter and tattle, perhaps about fruitful feeding spots, or unfriendly farmers or loose cats until only a tiny strip of light remains in the sky and then, like a line of synchronic chorus girls, they light from their spot and rise into the sky as a group. The massive swarm dips and dives, forming fluid masterpieces in the peach and crimson colored sky before finally flying off to roost overnight in the marshlands. No one knows exactly how or why the birds do this, but it is a true wonder to behold and it is called a ‘murmuration’.
Below them, rush hour traffic honks and bleats and piles up at red lights. Families tumble out of SUVs and into Applebees for dinner, exasperated mothers drag screaming toddlers out of Chuck E Cheese, and all the while, very few people seem to notice the stunning, borderline terrifying spectacle happening over their heads.
Centuries ago, long before the Starlings had been Americanized, Seekonk was home to the Wampanoag Tribe who eventually sold much of the land to early English settlers in the 17th century and Seekonk remained largely agricultural until well into the 20th century. When the first pairs of mated Starlings were spotted in the Seekonk area in 1910, only the occasional smattering of farms and homesteads would have been found amidst the bountiful forests, streams and marshlands that had sustained the Native Americans for centuries. The birds have witnessed quite a shift in the landscape over the last century and I often wonder if somehow, perhaps during those boisterous daily sessions of happy hour chattering that the flocks engage in, this information is passed down from one avian generation to the next.
Last spring, when the last of the Starling stragglers finally departed from the communal roost site in order to mate and nest for the summer, I felt a void. It seemed that it would be such a very long time until their inevitable return, but now, fall is upon us and soon the birds will be back. This year I will be there to greet them. Stay tuned.