Tag Archives: european starlings

Stephen Harper Birds

Reid Dickie

In a previous post, I wrote about the Jerry Lewis Birds that inhabit my and my neighbour’s backyards. In fact, they are European starlings and come with an asinine genesis in North America. Having grown accustomed to the starling’s bizarre repertoire of trills, thrills and chills, mimicking cats, squeaky hinges and other birds with expert precision, their sudden absence this spring was obvious.

In their place, a flock of Stephen Harper Birds invaded my neighbourhood. These birds have shiny heads and cold yellow eyes.  They aggressively usurp the starlings’ nests, threaten smaller birds like the sparrows that nest in my neighbour’s birdhouses, en masse attack crows and other birds, dive at cats and squirrels and offer a boring repetitious song. Because I didn’t know what science calls these birds, their sinister appearance and unpredictable behaviour earned them the moniker Stephen Harper Birds.

Just as appropriately they are, in fact and by the bird book, common grackles. A lanky blackbird apparently, but when in flocks are noisy and aggressive. I noticed a pair of grackles building a large nest high up in a conical cedar tree in my backyard. I didn’t want these greedy belligerent birds in my life all summer so I applied some bird psychology. I know, how hard can it be to outsmart a bird? Read on…

In my decades I have come to understand that aggression understands aggression so, with that in mind, I tied a stout piece of rope about eight feet high up on the trunk of the cedar where the grackles nested and yanked on it vigourously. It caused the lean tree to sway wildly and the top section where the nest was to whiplash violently, sending the bird fluttering out of the nest. I started this mid afternoon and did it every two hours, always accompanied with wild growls, hisses and noises to add to the effect. During the day other grackles would come and croak away, defending the nest, I guess. But I kept it up until about two in the morning and the bird would fly out of the nest each time. I did this for two days, always with the strange noises. By the third day, the grackles had moved on.

I expected them to return and start nesting again but it hasn’t happened. I notice they have moved about a block west of here, apparently finding easier and more amenable nesting opportunities there. At least now that they have abandoned our backyards, the cats can peacefully snooze on the railings again, the sparrows sound much happier and the European starlings have reclaimed their nests. No more Stephen Harper Birds to defile the neighbourhood. (My apologies to common grackle lovers for the comparison to The Dark One.)

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Tree Birds Dog Trucks Dead

Reid Dickie

In the cemetery of the church yard around St. Francois Xavier Roman Catholic Church in St. Francois Xavier, MB stands a huge tree, once magnificent in every season, now dead every day. On its naked branches, some entangled in the church steeple, European starlings gather to discuss important bird business. In the neighbourhood, Rover barks at imaginery foes, halftons roll past one by one and the dead are patient, as ever. Click the pic to watch my latest video, Tree Birds Dog Trucks Dead.

UPDATE: As of summer 2013, the tree has been cut down, just a low stump remains.

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Jerry Lewis Birds

           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!”

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