Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sturnus vulgaris

I watched a European starling hop around a supermarket parking lot today. His iridescent feathers glistened in the sun and he was puffed up a little from the cold. He was about as pretty as it is possible for a starling to be. I don't think any passerine has a more ungainly walk than a European starling, and the relative lack of a tail is a pretty serious fashion handicap, but when they're standing still, giving a full frontal view like the guy in the photo, they can be handsome birds.

Looks aren't everything, though, and I don't think there's any bird Americans hate more than starlings. My grandmother, who was not generally prone to violence, used to go after them with a pellet pistol. We'd be sitting in the kitchen having breakfast, and Granny would spy them through the window. She'd jump out of her chair, a woman on a mission. Starlings at my feeder! she'd say with fury, then she'd commence shooting at them out the back door.

I've never known anybody else who took up arms against the starlings, but a lot of serious birders do advocate killing them, which is perfectly legal. Along with the house sparrows, they're officially designated as alien nuisances. Homeowners are free to kill them and/or destroy their eggs and nests. If you've ever kept feeders or tried to draw bluebirds to your yard you can understand why. Gangs of starlings will bully every other species away from a feeder and then gorge like a busload of tourists at a buffet. They are just as greedy when it comes to housing. They're brutal about driving other cavity-nesters away from desirable homes. I won't inflict a link on you, but there are plenty of sites online with pictures of what starlings and house sparrows will do to bluebirds they wish to evict. It's not pretty.

Oddly for such aggressive nesters, they are neglectful parents. It's always a little sad to see fledgling starlings begging for food from oblivious adults, while the woodpeckers and bluebirds are feeding their offspring so lovingly. Starlings nurture their young very briefly and then junior is on his own. A lot of the babies don't make it, but most females lay a clutch at least twice in a season, so the infant mortality rate is clearly not a problem.

Even though there have been times I've felt like getting a pellet gun of my own, I don't think I could ever kill a starling. There's something tragic about them. They're so awkward and friendless. They didn't ask to be brought here, after all. They can't help being so freaking adaptable. It's ironic that we love least the creatures who are most able to thrive in the face of our rapacious ways.

Looking at that bird in the parking lot today, I thought about another starling encounter I had years ago. It was an unusually chilly late spring night, and as I walked back to my car after paying for my gas, I saw a pair of chicks huddled together on the cold concrete. They seemed to have just left the nest, and the glare of the station lights probably confused them. One of the chicks looked like a goner, but the other was pretty vigorous. If no one ran over him--a big if--he might survive. It made about as much sense as cheering on fire ants or Formosan termites, but I couldn't help rooting for him: You hang in there, little guy. I hope he made it.

European Starling page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Photo by Mark Skipper from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Winter comfort

There's plenty of light pollution hereabouts, with more creeping in all the time, but our nights are still dark enough that we sometimes get a really spectacular sky full of stars, and a clear view of the Milky Way. It happens mostly in winter, the only time the air is dry enough to be completely clear. As much as I hate the cold, I love standing outside on a January night, putting a crick in my neck as I try to pick out the constellations. That was one of the things I missed most during my city-dwelling years.

I grew up during the height of our national space mania. There was constant blather on television and in school about exploring the vast distances of the universe. The emphasis was always on "vast." This seemed to be the one aspect of space that teachers and NASA propagandists figured would sell: It's big, children. Seriously--big.

In spite of all that early brainwashing, I almost never think of the enormity of space when I look up at the stars. A dark, clouded sky on a moonless night--now that does make me feel like a tiny speck floating alone in an immense universe. But a night filled with twinkling lights makes the earth seem cozy to me, and complete in itself. The fact that those stars are very far away is something I can only register as an abstraction. My fanciful self says they are right here with me, like a crowd of slightly giddy friends who've shown up to celebrate something.

NASA photo of the Milky Way, taken with the Spitzer Space Telescope, from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A little romance

We've been getting just a taste of the intensely cold weather the rest of the country's having. Thursday was extremely chilly here, with enough wind to make walking outdoors less than blissful. I hiked about half my usual distance and decided that was enough. At one point on the trail--which was completely deserted except for me and one scrambling chipmunk--I encountered an overpowering odor of skunk. That seemed a little odd. Cold weather generally encourages skunks to stay huddled in their dens. I figured some unlucky guy had ventured out in search of a snack and become one. Skunks are a favorite food of great horned owls.

Friday morning's temp was around 3 degrees Fahrenheit, which was cold enough to keep me inside, but I was out again today, happy to get some exercise and fresh air--until I ran into another skunk stink, in almost exactly the same spot where it had been before. I kept an eye out and walked on for about 50 yards, then I heard a critter noise up ahead I couldn't quite identify. It was a sort of squealing trill, accompanied by the sound of rustling leaves.

I had to stop and look around for a while before I spotted them: A pair of beautiful, silky skunks locked in an amorous clutch, rolling and romping like porn stars. They were about 40 feet ahead of me, right next to the trail. The noise was mostly coming from the female, who appeared much more enthusiastic about the encounter than her feline and canine counterparts usually do. The male was very busy and intent. He kept changing position. The boy had technique.

The boy had stamina, too. I thought they'd soon finish their procreative business and I could walk on, but no. Fifteen minutes passed and they were still hard at it. I did something I almost never do when I'm out hiking. I pulled out my cell phone and called Dave--"Hey, guess what I'm doing? I'm watching skunks have sex." For some reason I just felt the need to share. He was suitably amused.

Interspecies voyeurism only has so much entertainment value, and I was starting to get cold, so I finally decided to turn back and leave the devoted couple alone. I felt happy. The world doesn't especially need more skunks, but it's always delightful to see life beget life, especially when everyone involved is having fun.

Photo from via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Living color

Sunday morning was a study in gray. A flat, dove-color sky was reflected in the lake, which was perfectly still. Staring at the water gave me a sense of being suspended in a void. Not an unpleasant sensation, but it had the odd effect of snatching my thoughts. I felt as I sometimes do just before I fall asleep--that my brain was still ticking away, cataloging perceptions, but none of the data was making its way to consciousness. I just stood a while and let myself not think. There was no sound except a crow complaining in the distance, and a little rustling of leaves by the squirrels, who never seem to take a break.

Olfacta commented on another post about the minimalist beauty of the Southern winter landscape, with its “million variations on neutral grays and browns”—a perfect description. I was thinking about her phrase as I walked along the trail away from the lake, when a poppy-bright cardinal flitted by me. A little further on I walked by a patch of moss, brilliant green. Those islands of color against the drab forest thrilled me. I don’t mean that they were merely pleasant or pretty—they thrilled me. A little jolt of happiness hit me. My heart beat faster, and I could feel my shoulders relax, my face soften into a slight smile.

I don’t usually think of myself as someone who is acutely sensitive to color. Nature seems to have blessed me with better than average senses of smell and hearing, and evened the score by giving me very weak eyes. My sense of sight started letting me down in childhood, so I have always tended to be a little less emotionally attached to visual pleasures, compared to the ones that come by other routes.

So when I encountered the bird and the moss, it was a mild shock to feel the joy of color so strongly. For just an instant I forgot myself, overwhelmed by the power of sensation. It mirrored the reverie by the gray lake, when the emptiness sucked away my thoughts. The color filled me with itself.

Some fun links:

An explanation of how color vision works

An interesting article about the consequences of color vision

A little visual trick

Concert of Birds, Frans Snyders (1579-1657)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Do not disturb

The temperature last Wednesday morning was above freezing, but a brutal north wind made it feel much colder. I kept putting down the hood of my jacket, thinking, Oh, it’s not that cold, and then a gust would hit me and I’d put it back up again. My eyes were streaming before I’d walked a quarter mile, so I was continually debating whether it was worth pulling one of my hands out of its warm pocket to wipe them.

It was especially windy at the lake, so I headed around to the little lagoon that’s sheltered by low ridges on two sides. The wind was whipping through the top branches of the trees but down at the bank the air was fairly still. I could stand there and enjoy the reflections on the rippling water, a natural kaleidoscope enhanced by the light of the rising sun.

I was strolling along the water’s edge, enjoying the respite from the cold and noting that all the birds seemed to have decided that this was not a day for early rising, when suddenly a great blue heron rose up out of the lagoon and flew silently out over the main body of the lake. He had only been about 25 or 30 feet away from me, but I never saw him until he took off.

Great blue herons are always a pleasure to see—they’re so big, and they fly so gracefully—but I immediately felt guilty for disturbing him. He had obviously been looking for a place of shelter himself, and my appearance had destroyed his temporary refuge. Of course, he was probably engaged in making life less happy for the little fish in the shallows, but I still pitied him as he disappeared into the cold, and I wished I could give him back his peace.

If there’s one lesson I keep relearning on my walks in the woods, it’s that life is a continual search for the lagoon. Everything alive seeks comfort, peace, a sense of safety. Those things are as necessary to survival as food and water. To steal sanctuary from another creature, even if we do it innocently or inadvertently, is a crime against him.

Video uploaded by mcnod at Youtube