I happened to be walking my dog in a tree-filled park the other day and overheard a strange snippet of conversation that left me wondering. There were a bunch of European starlings roosting in a big tree, and to tell you the truth, making a racket. A toddler and her mother were coming up the path and paused to look up in the direction of all the commotion. “We don’t like those birds!” the little girl exclaimed, wrinkling her nose in disdain. (I wondered whether she was speaking for her mom as well, or just using ‘the royal we’ like a little princess, also a possibility, I suppose!)
As they passed me, and paused to pat my dog, I said gently, “Why don’t you like those birds?” Her eyes widened. “Because they are so noisy and there are so many of them,” she told me. “They get up in the tree outside our house and poop on Daddy’s car. They are brats!” Her mother laughed ruefully in agreement and they moved on. (Quite a set of observations for someone so young, I reflected. Being observant of birds—I think—bodes well for her as a future birder, assuming she develops an interest in, er, nicer birds.)
Starlings are indeed often the birds some of us love to dislike. They can monopolize bird feeders, elbowing away other hungry visitors. (Birds and Blooms ran a good suggestion on what to do about this aggressive behavior a few years ago; here is the link.) They do travel in big, raucous crowds and when they perch in trees, on wires, on fences, and so on, they often make a lot of continual, uproarious noise. Nor is their “song” melodic. It’s actually more like an endless loop of pops, squawks, buzzes, and whistles. They are good, and annoying, mimics—like my little brother once was. Brats, like the little girl in the park so aptly put it.
They are also an import. I was surprised and intrigued to learn that starlings first came to this country via “Shakespeare enthusiasts.” Starlings are related to mynah birds, which you may know are also good mimics, popular as pets because they can learn various sounds and be taught to speak. (My parents’ mynah bird, dubbed Hawkeye, used to meow like a cat, driving their cat to distraction at the foot of his elevated cage.) Evidently in the play Henry IV, one character wants to annoy the king by teaching a starling to constantly repeat a prisoner’s name until the king agrees to release him. (Here’s the specific reference, if you must know: “Nay, I’ll have a starling that shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ ” Hotspur threatens.)
Well. If we were Queen, nay, we might instead release the starling and order it to fly away—far away—and take his noisy friends with him!