It’s springtime, and the city is magnificent; this year’s snow looked like it was on top of winter. However, as we consider what gave us joy during this challenging period, birds were at the top of many people’s happy lists. Those we saw from our windows—or on the street in New York City—in particular.
House sparrows (small brown and grey birds with a black beak and bib underneath), pigeons (which require no introduction), and starlings (which need no introduction) are the three animals that occupy the streets, asphalt, roofs of houses, fire escapes, window ledges, and air conditioners (the medium-sized dark iridescent birds that are quick, crafty and ubiquitous). Each of these species is an invasive species. Domesticated pigeons arrived in the United States from France about 1600 and escaped. In 1851, house sparrows were introduced to Brooklyn, and in 1890 and 1891, starlings were successfully released in Central Park.
The American Acclimatization Society, which was established in 1871 to bring species from Europe that were “useful or fascinating” to North America, was responsible for the house sparrow and starling introductions. E.g., house sparrows were brought in to control insect pests. Starlings, on the other hand, have a different story to tell. It’s generally assumed that the society’s founder, Eugene Schieffelin, introduced them to the United States as part of an attempt to import all of Shakespeare’s species. If Schieffelin was in charge of the starlings, there is no contemporary evidence for the Shakespeare-starling link—it isn’t listed in any official society text. The plot, which is a positive one, is still being told.
The scientific areas of ecology and conservation were nearly non-existent at the time of these introductions. We now know that this was a bad idea, whether for pest management or as a tribute to the great playwright. House sparrows and starlings are the world’s most common invasive species, intentionally introduced to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and other countries. But I’d apply a qualifier to that bad idea, making it “a beautiful, horrible” theory, as the Grinch would put it.
Since 2016, I’ve been researching starlings in New York City. I do it formally in museums and laboratories, but I often observe them informally on the street in between my study. It’s evolving into a full-fledged starling existence. Their adaptability to the urban environment, especially their dietary versatility, initially drew me in. They’ll eat yellow rice on Columbus Avenue, a pretzel on Central Park West, An apple pie in the parking lot of Costco in Queens. Pigeons and house sparrows sometimes hover and jump around them, but they cannot match their speed. They can walk on the ground very well for a bird. I’ve seen one saunter up a Checks Cashed ramp or fly low across the street before resuming walking seconds later.
They make such a wide range of sounds that you do not realize they’re from the same animal. You can hear them up and down whistling, whirring, and even an early video game laser–like echo if you listen closely. It may not be pretty enough to be considered an album, but it is still a song. When you stare at them, they never seem to look at you. However, you can tell they see you, and they respond incredibly quickly to every reaction. They’re off in the blink of an eye, consistently quicker than I can get my phone out for a decent shot. The color of their beaks and plumage changes with the seasons. Their feathers are flecked with white in the fall and winter, and their beaks are a rich orange.
Their beaks turn a light yellow color in early spring (thanks to hormones signaling pigment molecules), and their plumage is glossy and iridescent, with rich dark greens, greys, and purples rather than black. Males are particularly gleaming, somewhat bigger than females, and have thicker feathers on the front of their necks than females. The all-gray juveniles will be out of nests any day now, trying to fly and begging their parents for food.
Despite their peculiar characteristics, which make them ideal for urban birdwatching, starlings do millions of dollars in damage to farms around the country each year by decimating crops and stealing large amounts of grain intended for domesticated animals, and spreading diseases to livestock in their guano. As if that weren’t bad enough, starlings often crash into planes and fight for breeding sites with native birds. They make nests in tree holes and on ledges of stone windows. They are either avoided or despised by bird-lovers who are “in the know” because of their invasive status and the agricultural, ecological, and economic problems they create.
In reality, hating starlings is always a precursor to identifying as someone who is knowledgeable about birds. I sometimes wish I didn’t know what else they do around the world or why they came here, so I could sit back and watch them in peace. And I’m curious if you can be aware of their destructive directions while also appreciating facets of their genetics and actions—especially those two people who were keeping me company at the bus stop.
New York City’s avian range extends well beyond pigeons, house sparrows, and starlings. Tufted titmice, robins, red-tailed hawks, mourning doves, cardinals, and, if you were lucky a few weeks ago, the fabulous snowy owl can all be seen in the parks. In the spring, Central Park serves as a significant migrant flyway for various bird species, resulting in an influx of new and thrilling visitors. However, in this fractured metropolitan environment, diversity is not uniformly spread. But, what if, like last spring, you didn’t feel comfortable going into the busy park and instead choose to gaze out the window?
What if you were out busy and didn’t have time to put on your binoculars for a walk through the park when you weren’t in your pajamas like some? A garden can be a luxury at times. Is it, however, necessary to have the ability to see birds? An increasing body of evidence has quantified the health benefits of investing time in nature. Anxiety can be minimized, pessimistic rumination is reduced, and well-being improved by taking a short stroll in a natural green space. Is it any less uplifting if nature bursts out onto the sidewalk? Don’t animals like starlings inspire us with their tenacity in the face of a city’s often ridiculous ugliness?
The city looked incredibly bleak at times this winter, and nothing about the urban atmosphere reminded me of life or the natural world; sprawling warehouse buildings, scaffolding, for-rent signage, and restaurant structures struggling under snow. Then I saw five of them high up in the clouds, beside the water tower. I’m familiar with their triangular wings and fast, suspicious behaviour. Then, when they soared up and away from me, they left behind hope: of the bluer sky and future springtimes.