At Large : Wolves on the roof
The sloped roof above my office faces south, more or less. It gets a lot of sun, when there is sun, and also birds that travel in herds and like sunny roofs when they need a break. This time of year there are two main tribes, and they alternate in enjoying my hospitality. The crows dominate, of course, but because roof space is limited, many of their brethren cannot fit. The excommunicated populate the nearby trees or roofs, looking irritated. The grackles can fit their whole gang, and they do.
In November, Matt Pelikan, the birds and all sorts of other animals expert, put grackles in perspective. "Averaging about a quarter pound," he wrote in a Times column, "our 10,000 grackles add up to about 33 wolves in size - nothing compared to the ducks, but still, a major factor on the ground. Flocks of hundreds or thousands of grackles can sometimes be observed in up-Island woodlands, advancing in skirmishing order, flipping fallen leaves to find invertebrates, seeds, salamanders, or other edibles. I can't believe they miss much, and the annual influx of these birds is undoubtedly an influential force in regulating populations of these small prey species."
Below the regulators, hunched over my computer, I can tell the difference between the murder and the flock. The crows sound like a talkative roofing crew, tramping, hollering, chivvying one another, sometimes braying. There is a lot of fluttering and stamping. When the crows depart, I hear their big wings beating, and the second division perched nearby immediately forgets its estrangement and joins up.
The grackles, despite the astounding, uncountable troop of mouths to feed, do no work. They mutter continuously, apparently annoyed by the overcrowding. They never laugh. When they leave (often because the crows threaten invasion), the building trembles, momentarily, vaguely, but unmistakably. I imagine the flock bending its thousands of bird knees in unison and pushing off, hearts pounding, swooping somewhere new, decided upon without consultation or hesitation. Where are we headed, a youngster at the back of the pack asks. We have no idea, his mentor replies, we'll know when we're there. I have been delighted by these visitors. By the scouting parties and then by the overwhelming force that materializes as a coordinated cloud.
I am not a bird person, and Moll laughs at my fascination with grackles, starlings, finches, commoners of the avian population. But she will smile when she reads this, which is all that matters.
The red finches, who will predominate later in the year, sing to me tirelessly. You can hear their scouts call whooee, which I think means, All clear, boys. They do not use the roof. In fact, it is impossible to see where they set up camp. At once, from nowhere, there's a regiment, a division, an entire army. Dozens of birds. Tens of dozens. They come to feast on the bittersweet that twines the 20-foot posts that support the porch outside my office. This bittersweet is so robust, so outgoing that over the years it climbed my porch on two tall posts and made its way toward the sliding door through which I watch the harbor beyond the changing array of endangered species hauled out at Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway. This woody, grasping relative of the nightshade snakes slowly across my room, toward me and my computer.
I've had to cut it back. Its searching tentacles wound themselves around the antenna on my car and yanked it off. They've done it three times. Plus, the birds did their business all over the deck and the car. It became time to thin the bittersweet, which in turn has thinned the flock.
I thought it was the grackles that helped to hold off the bittersweet. But, it wasn't grackles. A little research and I discovered they were starlings. European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris. There is nothing wrong with starlings. They are of the family Sturnidae. The grackles, for your information, are Icterids. But really, the two are similar - "blackbird-like," the books say - and the extended family includes your blackbirds, your orioles, your bobolinks, your meadowlarks.
An oriole would be nice, or a meadowlark, but besides grackles, I got starlings. They don't sing like the red finches do, but they sometimes possess the entire view from my office. When they do, I imagine it is something like what the rock star sees from behind his mike on the outdoor stage as he looks down upon the sea of fans dancing to his music.
Sometimes, a small patrol will sortie through the half open door into my room, wheel just before the wall and rush out again. I duck.
I have learned that these starlings, like so many other visitors, are from New York. I like them anyway. They are descendants of 100 birds, no more, released there in 1890 and 1891. Apart from their gregariousness, doubtless a laudable quality but one which I am told I lack, these birds have some bad traits. (Don't we all?)
They often damage fruit and grain crops. (They absolutely ravage the bittersweet, I can tell you.) They will take uninvited possession of the holes in which native songbirds make their homes. They steal not only the homes but also the songs of other birds.
As I watch them through the wide glass door, they examine me. Iridescent, bluish black at the neck, with even a hint of verdigris mixed in, speckled above the wings and on the breast and flanks, one stares blinking from just three feet away. He is not alarmed, no doubt because he enjoys great strength in numbers.