West Chester University
Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
EXPRESSIVE WRITING IN THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Starling Chronicles
Why is there a wild bird in my apartment?
By LAURA SHAINE CUNNINGHAM
New York Times (New York/Region) 2/12/06
Multimedia presentation at the NYT
She fell, as a nestling, from the rain gutter on the roof of my country house. Since then, she has been dividing her time, as I do, between city and country — taking taxis while in town, going to meetings, theater. She has spent quality time in my apartment on East 80th Street, gazing at the street scene and listening to WQXR. She responds to both classical and jazz, is attentive to Jonathan Schwartz.
At the start, there were two baby birds — the one we took to calling Raven Starling and her sibling, a creature that was smaller and weaker from the get-go. The ousted nestlings lay stranded on the grass, looking less like birds than glands, fleshy globs with a suggestion of gray lint over raw red flesh.
The ugly little hatchlings had survived a three-story fall from a roof, and they had luck from the start; they fell at the feet of my 12-year-old daughter, Jasmine. “Oh, look!” she cried. “Baby birds!”
Ugh, I thought. But I dutifully went online to figure out what to do with these creatures, then called a wildlife rehabilitation phone number that I found under “Wild Baby Birds.” After listening to my description, the fatigued woman on the other end snapped: “Sturnus vulgaris, a starling. Dog food on a chopstick, every hour.”
I set the unappealing twosome on a warm hand towel in a basket
in the bathroom. “They’ll be dead in the morning,” I thought, with some
“One didn’t make it,” Jasmine said, her voice reedy with grief. “Let’s hope for Ravvie.”
Thus began the grueling all-day feedings. In the wild, starlings are insectivores, but they can live as omnivores if someone is willing to shop and mash commercial food for them. Ravvie demanded more and more of the recommended meal, which we adapted to cat food, Nine Lives mixed with Mott’s natural apple sauce (no sugar for starlings, only corn syrup or fruit sweeteners), ground Tums (for calcium) and mashed hard-boiled egg yolk to meet her “intense protein needs.”
Why we were meeting this creature’s intense protein needs was another matter. I did not give Raven Starling great odds. I believed that her daily meals were only staving off the inevitable. Every morning, I expected to find her dead in her basket, beak sealed forever.
But when I walked into the bathroom on the fourth day, she stood up and spread her featherless wings, looking like a mini oviraptor escaped from Jurassic Park, demanding to be fed. I did not find the sight appealing, but I was impressed. “She wants to live,” I realized. From that moment forth, I found the image of the bird, alone, opening her mouth without anyone to hear, unbearable.
Which explains why I nearly died later that day, feeding her from her chopstick while navigating a turn off the West Side Highway into Greenwich Village, where a play of mine was in rehearsal. She later made it to several performances. With a drape over her head, Raven Starling knew to be still during performances, at least off Broadway. Raven Starling adapted to apartment life; she would even tolerate a car-sit for alternate-side-of-the street parking, or a quick run into the hot bagel place. Even an insectivore, I noted, was not immune to the charms of a warm sesame bagel.
Our doorman, Manuel Gonzalez, welcomed Raven Starling. With doormanly discretion, he ignored her unattractive appearance and gave her courteous rides, often on his uniformed arm.
In my apartment, two blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she perched on a houseplant and looked out the window, studying the city pigeons and sparrows and the renovation of the Junior League building across the street. She splattered away, in a box in the powder room. What have I done? I wondered. I’ve brought the worst of the country; a fecal spray, a wild thing, into what was an oasis of urban civilization. But I did notice she seemed attentive when I turned on WQXR, the classical station, and she clutched a program from the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center.
I tried to ignore her odor, her cat-food-encrusted beak, and forced myself to share my daughter’s deepening love. “Oh, she’s so cute.”
But she wasn’t cute. Her face was foreshortened, and with her tiny beady eyes, bright with ruthless appetite, and a jaw that compressed when her beak closed, which was rare, she looked like Andy Gump.
I WENT to the Web site Starling Talk to check out the origins of starlings and discovered some surprising facts. The starling is a New York immigrant and, if not for Shakespeare, would never have entered our lives.
In March 1890, a New York drug manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin acted on his love for the playwright by vowing to release into Central Park all the songbirds mentioned in Shakespeare. Mr. Schieffelin loosed several species: thrushes, skylarks and starlings. Only the starlings survived. From the initial 100 birds released, flocks reproduced to the current hundreds of millions, making them among the nation’s most abundant and ultimately most controversial birds. They are infamous as pests, accused of corroding buildings with their acid droppings, which is why the joy over their first observed roost, in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History, quickly hardened into disgust.
What did Shakespeare say regarding starlings that so inspired the 19th-century drug maker? It’s a line in “Henry IV, Part 1,” in which Hotspur threatens: “The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep. I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”
The birds, I learn, are mimics, known in Elizabethan times as “the poor man’s mynah.” Oddly, they are unlikely to repeat a single word; they require a rhythmic phrase. So Shakespeare is now regarded as having made a mistake. But one billion birds later, with Raven Starling as my constant companion, I live with the result of one man’s infatuation with Shakespeare’s silver-tongued reference to songbirds. “She’s making a mess,” I kept saying, but I also kept feeding her, and she grew, not gradually but suddenly, into a midsize blackish bird. “Take a bath!” I ordered her, and she did, in a soup bowl filled with water in my formerly spotless city kitchen.
By this point, the history of the starling had me in its talons. Starlings may be the champion bird “talkers”; they can chorus in the wild by the thousands. Some experts have observed “a murmuration,” as a flock of starlings is called, numbering a million or more.
Yet starlings are as despised as they are loved. In September, it was reported that the federal government had killed 2.3 million starlings in 2004 as part of a campaign to get rid of what it described as “nuisance animals.” Starling eliminators insist that the birds damage crops, soil buildings, even cause planes to crash, and have resorted to Roman candles, hot wires and a poison called Starlicide to discourage or destroy the birds.
Is the killing justified? Starling supporters insist that it isn’t, that the starling kills so many destructive insects; a murmuration should elicit a chorus of praise. Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring,” championed the starling: “In spite of his remarkable success as a pioneer, the starling probably has fewer friends than almost any other creature that wears feathers. That fact, however, seems to be of very little importance to this cheerful bird with glossy plumage and stumpy tail.” The starling, she continued, “hurries with jerky steps about the farms and gardens in the summer time, carrying more than 100 loads of destructive insects per day to his screaming offspring.”
Another admirer was Mozart, who paid dearly for his pet starling, loved it and staged a funeral when it passed away, of unknown causes, at age 3. Some authorities think the starling’s song became incorporated into Mozart’s composition “A Musical Joke.”
RAVEN STARLING also began to sing, but would she really be independent someday? Could I release her, perhaps back into Central Park?
No, I could not, I was told by Jackie Collins, who runs Starling Talk. An “imprint” bird like mine, raised from infancy, can never join a starling murmuration. Starling Talk is filled with descriptions of confused imprint birds that have been found injured and emaciated and are unable to join in a flock. Although Raven Starling would one day speak better than a parrot, live to be 20 and play with a whiffle ball, she would have to stay forever among her adopted species — humans.
By then I had ascended into the skies of a cyberculture of starling-keepers, and joined the Chirp Room, where visitors signed off with phrases like “the whisper of wings” and quoted the famous line from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “You are responsible forever for what you have tamed.” I learned that there are thousands of starling-keepers, the beneficiaries of a legal loophole: Although keeping a native wild bird in your home is illegal, starlings are exempt because of their foreign origin.
Meanwhile, Raven Starling grew prettier. As she matured, she displayed a certain etiquette, wiping her beak after each gooey bite. We shared toast. I played her Mozart’s starling song.
Now when I heard the deep chords of Mozart’s “Requiem,” and Raven Starling sang along, in full throat, I pondered why I had tried so hard to keep this bird alive. Was it simply to keep a promise to a child? Perhaps there was another reason. In my home, we are all foundlings. I was an orphaned child, and my little girl was left on a street in China. Was this why the fallen starling had to be rescued? Because in our family, abandonment is unthinkable?
Whatever my motivation, I was not alone in my demented devotions. At 3 one morning I tried to predict what would become of the three of us by checking on the bird’s Web site, Starling Talk. There, I learned about other baby starling “parents” who were struggling with similar issues but also celebrating events such as “Stormy’s Fifth Birthday.” Tamed starlings were on display, rainbow-hued when loved and cleaned, aglow as they were videotaped: “Plant a kiss on me, liverlips,” said a saveling named Techno.
I admit, I had become attached to Ravvie. She flew to me at a whistle, and she groomed my tousled hair. She sat on my head when I played piano. I never thought that I could love an insectivore. Maybe it’s possible that someone can love anything.
How far would I go in catering to my insectivore? Could I be like those other starling people on the Web site, who order bags of dried bugs? There was a human murmuration on the Web, especially in the dead of night, composed of bird people like a man living in a city apartment with an adult male starling named Smarty who has learned to take sharp right turns.
But winter would change everything. Winter was when the true trial of caring indoors for a wild bird would begin. Raven Starling would be forced for long periods into apartment life in the city. I have learned that if she walked for much longer on even carpeted city floors, she would develop a deformity, “spraggle feet.”
ONE dawn, I began to communicate with a woman upstate, who has four starlings and offered to adopt mine. And I begin to wonder, what is best, to maintain Raven Starling as a lone creature, becoming spraggle-footed, commuting to New York and riding elevators, or surrender her to another “mother” who maintains three rooms in her home just for her birds?
So it came to pass that one September Sunday, I found myself driving with my daughter and the bird, in her cage, strapped to the back car seat, to a town five hours north of New York that even on the warm golden day appeared flattened by the memory of blizzards. Fort Plain, just outside Canajoharie.
The town is blanched and beaten, an entire town with freezer burn. Nearly all the factories that once sustained the area closed long ago. Yet it is here I was assured that a warm and loving home with other starlings awaited Raven Starling.
Mary Ann, the “adoptive mother” who is known on the Web as Little Feathers, was sitting on the stoop of a house with a peaked roof when we arrived. At 52, in T-shirt and jeans, with long, flowing hair, she had a fatigued, youthful quality.
Inside her neat but crammed living room, there was a smell, not unpleasant but avian. I think it was the smell of warm feathers.
Mary Ann has three children: an 11-year-old daughter and a boy and girl who are 12. The older girl was robust; her handsome twin brother, who has cerebral palsy, looked five years younger, thin and frail. Mary Ann also had a dozen avian “babies.” Her voice quickened as she described the antics of George. “He’s just a baby. And Chirp, she was given to me. And Littlefeathers, he was the first. And Trouble, well, his name fits.”
In addition to the starlings, there were three pigeons, four society finches, and, the pièce de résistance, a paralyzed sparrow presented in the palm of her hand. I could not help connecting the flightless bird to the child who sits so still on the couch.
How could Mary Ann care for all these needful beings? I was on the brink of saying, “We thank you, but I’ll take the bird home.” Instead, we recited the chorus of open adoption: I asked and she agreed, “You shall have visitation.”
“We can see her again,” I said, my voice climbing too high, as Jasmine and I drove back to the city.
I knew we were thinking the same thought. Someone left my daughter somewhere almost 13 years ago. “On Quon Dong Road,” her papers report. I recited the rationale that Raven Starling was better off with other birds, with an at-home mother who knew avian medicine and had an avian vet. I had no doubt that was all true, but my hands tightened on the steering wheel.
“We’re never coming back,” my child said.
We drove along, and then somewhere along the Thruway, above a vast pasture, we saw them, a murmuration of starlings, thousands of birds. Through the open car window, I heard, or more accurately felt, a familiar sound, more vibration or audible breeze than a true noise; the flutter of thousands of wings in unison, combined with a muted mass voice.
Later at twilight in the city, walking through Central Park, my daughter and I caught sight of another flock, or was it the same one? This was the true murmuration, an entity unto itself, to which Raven Starling, had her fate not crossed with ours, would have belonged. I watched the birds dip, then rise and reverse again, an animate banner, starring the skies above the city.
My daughter and I stared upward. We would never see a flock of birds again without noticing and remembering: We knew one in a billion.
Laura Shaine Cunningham is the author of the memoirs “Sleeping Arrangements” and “A Place in the Country” and four novels, including “Beautiful Bodies” and “Dreams of Rescue.”
Questions? Contact me.
All materials unless otherwise indicated are copyright ©
2001-2008 by Stacy Tartar Esch.
The original contents of this site may not be reproduced, republished, reused, or retransmitted
without the express written consent of Stacy Tartar Esch.
These contents are for educational purposes only.