Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Shakespeare and European Starlings

This is the first closeup photo I took of a European starling (Dec 2011 Tower Hill Botanic Garden).   It was the first time I discovered they were kind of pretty....or at least not as plain and boring as they look from afar!  I like their spotted bellies.

Starlings are not known for their beauty in looks or song.  Also, some people blame them for the decline in population of the beautiful (and popular) Eastern Bluebird.  So, they have a bad reputation and are not particularly well liked.

What I didn't know until today is that starlings are good mimics.  They can imitate the songs of many other birds and, if domesticated, can be taught to whistle any tune.  Once, a starling famously mimicked an unpublished tune that Mozart whistled when he was shopping in a pet store.  Mozart bought the bird and kept it as a pet!

Earlier this month, my father shared a piece he read about why the European starling was brought to the United States.  In the late 1590s, Shakespeare included the mimicking ability of the starling in his writing of Henry IV, Part 1.  Later, in the 1890s, a group called the American Acclimatization Society conceived a project to introduce every bird mentioned in Shakespeare's scripts (which numbered more than 600 species!) to the U.S.   A Bronx resident and drug manufacturer, Eugene Shieffelin, was the individual exclusively responsible for the starlings' arrival in the U.S.  The A.A.S. released about 100 starlings in New York City's Central Park in 1890 and 1891.  Today their North American numbers top an estimated 200 million.  Quite a success story!

This morning I walked by the Sudbury River near the train station in Ashland, Massachusetts.   The first birds I heard were European starlings, squeaking and squawking from the telephone wire above the road.

I also heard two red-winged blackbirds calling and this time, I actually located one of them!  He had a small bit of very muted yellow color showing on his shoulder, a sure sign of spring.   The rat-a-tat-tat of a downy woodpecker made him an easy find.   Cardinals were singing their hearts out, and one male was perched at the very top of a tall tree.  

After I shot this picture of the Sudbury River, I noticed movement at the base of the reeds across the river.  The Hooded Mergansers were there and moving to distance themselves from the dangerous sound of my camera!

Sudbury River (looking west)

I daresay there's a little hint of red to those trees now.  Do you see it?

Red-winged Blackbird (w/ just a bit of color returning to his shoulder)

Male Downy Woodpecker

Male Cardinal

Hooded Mergansers

At lunchtime, I made a quick stop at the Sudbury River again and took a picture of the view looking East (from just past the Fountain Street Bridge).  The sky was very pretty!

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