Knock at the door
Regiments of birds visit me nearly every day. I enjoy their company, which has been reliable year after year in the fall. When I tell Moll about my visitors, she smiles. I love that smile. Fondness, amusement, indulgence, wistfulness, and a tiny, pale cataract of unease: it is a smile of many parts.
The birds come in a streak. First, they send a small scouting party, dark, fleet lasers every one. They perch on the railing outside my office, then on the posts that support it. The red finches, the regulars that sing to me tirelessly, have had the place to themselves since spring. When the newcomers' scouts arrive, the finches beat an immediate retreat.
Oh, Doug, she said, they're grackles.
What's wrong with grackles? I replied.
I have been delighted by these visitors. By the scouting parties and then, soon, by the overwhelming force that materializes as a darting, swooping, coordinated cloud. Perfect command and control.
You can hear the scouts call whooee, which apparently means, All clear, boys. At once, from nowhere, there's a regiment, no, a division. Dozens of birds. Tens of dozens. All here 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, so hardy 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 is heading for my room, for me. The grackles are holding off the bittersweet. They are my last line of defense.
Despite them, I've had to cut the bittersweet back. It threatened a year or two ago to consume the deck and reach right into the office. And its searching tentacles wind themselves around the antenna on my car and pull it off. They've done it three times. Plus, the birds - gourmands all - do their business all over the deck and the car. It became time to thin the bittersweet, which in turn has thinned the flock.
Anyhow, they aren't grackles. A little research and I discovered they are starlings. European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris.
I told her, They're not grackles, they're starlings.
That smile again.
Starlings. Oh, Doug.
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 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.
Once, one missed the opening and slammed, ka-boom, into the glass. He lay stunned on the rug. I lifted him (he may have been a she, but I don't think so, judging from the pictures in the bird book) placed him upon his shield and carried him to the top of the porch post. Eventually, he answered the call of his comrades in arms and flew away.
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 are absolutely stripping my 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 holds a yellow bittersweet berry in his conical beak. The bright, orange-red husk at the base of the berry is nearly gone. Soon he will have crushed the tough aril and gained the seeds. He is not alarmed, no doubt because he enjoys great strength in numbers.