From lack of knowing what ornithologists call the birds that nested in our neighbour’s eaves, splashed in our birdbath, crapped on our deck and sang in our elm and maple trees, we dubbed them Jerry Lewis birds. Linda and I named them that because of their large fanciful repertoire of odd whistles, tweets, coos, hoots, squeaks and throaty gurgles. At times, it sounded like they were chuckling to themselves. Sometimes I’d whistle two or three notes a few times and the Jerry Lewis birds would try to imitate them, or so it seemed. They definitely meowed like the neighbourhood cats and imitated the squeaky hinge on our neighbour’s backdoor. We expected the next thing they’d say is “Hey Lay Dee!”
They have a distinctive appearance. Their feathers are black and iridescent purples, greens and blues with hints of paler shades depending on the light. The plumage is sometimes speckled with white spots around the head, neck and belly. The bill changes from yellow to dark brown in the fall. Compared to the little sparrows that shared the nesting area, Jerry Lewis birds are aggressive.
By sheer luck, I found out what these critters are called. I had come across a book called Manitoba Birds and opened it, coincidentally to the picture of our noisy backyard bird. It was the European starling, not a bird native to North America but an introduced specie. The story of how European starlings came here makes them even more worthy of the name Jerry Lewis birds.
They were brought here under the silliest pretext, one borne out of human ignorance and hubris. Late in the 1800s, there was a group in New York City called the Acclimatization Society whose aim was to introduce into North America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings, a frivolous plan at best, a disaster for indigenous species at worst.
About 60 European starlings were released in Central Park in 1890 and 1891. Since then the offspring of those 60 birds have spread to every corner of the continent. So successful have they been at adapting to their new environs that in the northeastern United States, they often flock in such large numbers they become a nuisance.
One of the disasters of European starlings is they are cavity-nesting birds and will aggressively take nesting sites away from native birds. European starlings will nest near people in cities, towns and farms or in forests and clearings. They can produce two or three batches of young every year, ensuring their numbers remain high and continue to disadvantage other birds.
So the exotic bird we thought was a fun-loving entertainer that mimics other birds, cats and environmental sounds – I’m sure I’ve heard them imitate the two-note stoplight beeps that help disabled people cross the street – is an invader, a usurper stealing food and nests from native birds.
“Hey Lay Dee!”