The starlings are back.
Since my husband and I left the bustle of New York City to make a home among the twisting creeks and sandy beaches of Charleston, S.C., the birds and butterflies mark the seasons. Of course, year-round this is a place of water birds. Near the ocean, sandpipers skitter light-footed across the waterline. Back in the creeks, herons sit stock-still on dock pilings, their keen eyes focused beneath the silty surface of the creek. Snowy white egrets stretch themselves in flight against some of the bluest skies I’ve ever seen.
But I know that it’s autumn with Thanksgiving around the corner when I step into the back yard to hear the chorus of chirps, squawks, and cackles of the starlings. They flock by the dozens in the branches of our 80-year-old red pine, their bodies rendered invisible by the pinecones were it not for the interminable calamity they cause. They bully the cardinals and even the blue jays. They shovel seed from the feeders and can empty them in minutes. But I don’t begrudge their presence: after all, it’s not their fault. Starlings are genetic refugees.
In 1890-1891, a small group of European starlings were released in New York City by the American Acclimatization Society. Their romantic but idiotic ambition? To introduce all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to Central Park. Today the population of European starlings in the U.S. is approximately 200,000,000. It’d be an understatement to call starlings a nuisance. In my back yard, we get off easy. Across the US each year flocks of starlings are responsible for nearly $800 million dollars of crop damage.
Fiercely aggressive, they root out and destroy the nests of other birds. They’re opportunistic feeders. Sadly, people are encouraged to annihilate eggs, nests, adults and young starlings alike. We have created a monster. Starlings are only one example of how human beings have interfered with the natural course of nature only to cause disastrous and likely irreversible results. Like everything in nature, there is always something to admire in the starlings – the way their glossy feathers refract in the light like so many rainbows, the liveliness of their conversation, the way their jaw has genetically evolved to adapt here. They’re also quite clever and can even imitate human speech.
There are now 2,789 different plants, fish, mammals, insects, reptiles and birds wreaking havoc in the natural environment of the U.S. thanks to human meddling. In America alone, we’ve introduced African bees, snakehead fish, Asian carp, the Red Imported Fire Ant, zebra mussels…the list goes on. My point isn’t to bemoan our state of affairs – organizations like Invasive.org and the National Invasive Species Council are doing their best to mitigate the issues, despite the fact that they’re fighting a largely uphill battle. The time has come when we need to adopt a responsible position in the balance of the world’s ecosystem and stop screwing around with it. It’s a mindset, an intention, and a respect for the natural world that needs to be put into action now, not tomorrow. Because when we mess with nature’s balance, disastrous things happen. My hope is that we can learn from the mistakes of the past and carry that knowledge forward. We need more education, adaptation of these issues in school curriculums at all age levels, more outreach. Stricter regulations. But most of all, we need active thinkers and community members who take the time to say to our corporations and government bodies, “This is not okay.”
Avaaz.org, Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy are great places to start. Donate your time, donate your money if you can, and most importantly, donate your attention to helping us recreate the way people treat the planet. Sure, this planet is resilient. It lived for millennia before we came, and with hope it will live millennia after. It’s up to us to decide whether or not we’ll be on it. Because when you consider things this way, human beings—with no natural predators, our technology, our adaptability and our incredible intellect—are the most invasive species of all.