I had a revelation about nature today. Walking back from the Lachine Canal I saw a group of European Starlings fighting over a chicken carcass. The thing about starlings is, that, like most of us, they’re not supposed to be here. Every European Starling in North America is a descendant of somewhere between 60 and 100 (reports vary) birds released into Central Park in the early 1890s. They are, in ecologist’s parlance, an “invasive species“. In this respect, we’re kissing cousins.
So, anyway, the starling now numbers some 200,000,000 or thereabouts, and is widespread. It’s one of the commonest birds in North America. I’ve seen them everywhere, from the mean streets of Pointe St. Charles to the highest mountaintops of the Rockies, to the beautiful shores of Vancouver Island. They’re the bird from central casting. Ubiquitous, chirpy and altogether plain.
The starlings hovering around the carcass were, I reflected, descendants of the few dozen foolishly released by a certain bozo (operating on the bizarre notion that all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare should be introduced to the New World…). Thriving because of their versatility. Traveling in noisy little gangs, European Starlings are perversely pesky — whistling at and cajoling local cats, intimidating squirrels, and overwhelming sparrows. When a group is around, you know it. Strangely, in this respect, they’re kind of like New Yorkers…Or really all Americans…
In perfect Social Darwinian fashion the starlings I watched today seemed far too busy bullying, thrusting, squawking, posturing, positioning and generally acting greedy, selfish and individualistic. None of them was eating much of anything.
If Aesop had written this fable a dog would have come by to snatch away the carcass, leaving the starlings hungry and outfoxed, so to speak. But, alas, they’re the master scavengers of the urban landscape, and manage to make a meal out of the littlest specks and crumbs. Like locusts with beaks.
Sad, really, as they have been one of the main sources of songbird decline, pushing more particular (and too-brightly colored) birds to the edge of scarcity. A monolithic monochrome army with wings.
Metaphor for the decline of diversity in general. But also a stern warning about ill-conceived attempts to guide the processes of nature. Frightening to think how some of the species adapted, changed, introduced or cloned today will impact the world 100 years from now.
The lesson of the humble starling is sure to seem quaint in comparison.