A Life Lesson

I’ve received a lot of feedback since publishing “All God’s Critters” and “A Few Random Thoughts.” I’m grateful so many read them. What follows is a quick summary with a couple of personal thoughts thrown in.

Some people don’t like European Starlings. Their scientific name, Sturnus vulgaris, could have something to do with it. Or it could be their inelegant shape or their harsh songs and calls. But most don’t like them because they were introduced, they’re invasive, they compete with native cavity nesters, and they dominate feeders.

European Starling flock
European Starling flock

Others look at them differently. While they acknowledge the above, they also note their iridescence, their intelligence, and the excitement of watching their murmurations. And they take pleasure in taking their pictures and see them as vehicles for learning about birds.

The Feedback 

Let’s drill down a bit.

I received comments like this one from Ryan: “It’s a shame that such beautiful and intelligent birds are so invasive and cause habitat destruction as well as irreparable harm to native species.” Eric wrote much the same thing: “Species such as starlings or house sparrows are definitely ‘trash birds’ given what they do to our native species.”

But I also received comments like this one from Nancy: “My 4 year old granddaughter was admiring a beautiful European Starling on my feeder this morning. She said, ‘Grandmama, look at that pretty bird. He has pretty colors.'” And Jim followed up with these thoughtful and important words: “I have little sympathy for starlings or house sparrows or pigeons, but without them people who live in some of the most dreary sections of our inner cities would have very little if any birdlife around them.”

European Starling
European Starling

The Story

That leads me to this. I not only received comments from Ryan, Eric, Nancy, Jim, and many others—comments both pro and con—but I received a story from Joanne. It’s a story about a life lesson provided by a European Starling: a lesson that put her in the camp of those who see the species differently. 

My husband and I went to the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, PA mid-day on a cold, snowy February day in 2007. We entered the flight room just about feeding time. We were the only ones there, so we chatted the docent and he shared knowledge of some of the birds with us. He said it was getting close to feeding time and  and asked if we interested in helping. Yes, we certainly were! He said we could start by hand-feeding the birds.    
We each put one hand out, palm up, and he put bits of food in our hand. Stay still and quiet, he said, and see if they will come. All sorts of amazing and gorgeous birds landed nearby, all colors of the rainbow. All exotic, except for one European Starling. “He snuck in one day and we couldn’t get him out,” the docent explained. “So we figured we’d just let him stay. Why not?” Well, that’s cool – but it was a starling, after all. Intruder. I had my eyes on the exotics. 
And suddenly – a flash of wings! Coming to my hand!  
It was the starling.
European Starlings
European Starlings
Reflexively, I pulled my hand away and it flew off. Everything seemed quiet for a moment. Then the starling flew to Jon’s hand. And Jon let it feed. And he appreciated it. He said he hadn’t realized how beautiful starlings actually were, because he’d never been that close to one. Then I looked with fresh eyes – and saw its beauty. The spangles are really stunning, up close on a living bird. And the bird was also really cute and friendly as it fed, looking at Jon and seemingly getting to know him. While totally ignoring me.  
Then the exotics started to fly! 
To Jon.  
My hand stayed empty. At least for what seemed like nearly an eternity. Then a few came to me, tentatively. But Jon definitely had curried favor and trust and the birds responded in kind. He kept getting more food and more birds! Yes, I enjoyed the birds that visited me, but I was actually kind of jealous that the birds really favored my husband! 
And that was the moment I learned an important lesson.   
“Don’t diss a starling.”    
A life lesson. 
Try to enjoy what’s given and avoid disrespecting anyone/anything based on bias or prejudice. You have no idea how beautiful something might be until you open yourself to it. And it DOES matter how you treat even the least one. Even the birds will take note of how you treat others.
Joanne Howl, DVM
West River, MD
European Starling
European Starling
And This Just In
Thanks so much to Joanne for sending that story along. Stories like Joanne’s and comments like the ones mentioned above are the “lifeblood of the blogosphere.” I really enjoy receiving them and respond to each one.
A few days ago, I experienced a first. While I was out taking pictures, I saw a bird fall from the sky at the hands of hunters. In my next blog, I’ll share with you how I responded as well as photos of the hunting party. 
Quip, Question, Quote
It’d be very easy just to repeat Joanne’s final paragraph, but I promised a reader I’d close with the following.
We’ll end with two lines from Martha Steele’s August 2020 Bird Observer column. I love Martha’s writing and have quoted her often.

“In the face of what seems to be an increasingly troubled country and world, I take refuge in the birds and the natural world.”

“I hope that together we find common ground and our way forward, just as our avian friends and other wildlife find theirs.”

Thanks so much for reading. Happy New Year to you and yours.





19 thoughts on “A Life Lesson

  1. Starlings are aggressively eradicated in many farming areas. They cause massive damages to crops, eat livestock feed, and do other damage.

    Just one example:

    ” starlings are considered an “invasive species” that have a negative impact on the environment. She noted they have a large flocking behaviour and have a tendency to force out native species.

    Miskell said starlings have a negative impact on the economy, too, noting they are responsible for a 10 per cent loss (about $5 million) in grape crops every year.”


    Rats are cute and intelligent too, if you take the time to attract them. They’ll come eat out of your hand.

    Would you advocate for rat protection?

    Just some food for thought.

    Thanks for your pictures and writing.

    All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I would advocate for rat protection! All species provide services to the environment.
      As for the grape-crop loss caused by starlings, have you considered that grapes shouldn’t even be grown in Virginia? They are foreign plants growing on North American root stocks, and they require pesticides to prevent fungus because they are not humid-climate plants.
      Humans are much too cavalier about what they do with the environment while demonizing other species for just going to unprotected food sources. People need to learn to live in agreement with nature instead of working without any regard for its needs.
      Sincerely, Marlene


  2. I love that story. I never realised starlings were considered invasive in the US until I read a book called Mozart’s Starling last year. It’s true that starlings are birds I grew up with as an urban child, and they really are beautiful, as well as clever and they always seem full of joy. I’m always cautious about demonising ‘invader’ species, is it really up to us to decide which of them should live or die?


    1. Andrea, It is a great story, and I was thrilled that Joanne shared it with me. I love your words: “is it really up to us to decide which of them should live or die?” Interesting that you mentioned Mozart’s starling. I was going to do the same in this piece, but just couldn’t find a way. All the best!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is more than just a story about starlings. It’s a lesson about prejudice. Martha Steele’s quote is particularly appropriate in today’s climate. Thank you for sharing this


  4. Great post, great story, and I do love your final quotes. Since I became more interested in photography I discovered if you look closely at creatures in nature, they are all amazing! I now love taking photos of bugs, they are so cool! And I love finding any birds that will allow me to snap a photo. I was especially excited to happen across several snakes this past year.
    I had no idea a bird could be so controversial. But I do know sometimes when creatures are out of their natural area or environment they can upset the balance of nature.
    Loved your post!


    1. Thanks so much. Loved your point about taking pictures as a means to learning more about subjects (birds, snakes, etc.) That is so true. We can study our photos and see details we’d completely miss otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I wonder if birders dislike of Starlings isn’t related to their sheer abundance. Many birders excitedly chase a rarity like the Shiny Cowbird or even the Monk Parakeet both of which species are considered pests in their ‘homelands’. I am trying and failing right now to think of which native birds Starlings, Pigeons and House Sparrows displace in a densly populated city like Philadelphia.
    In any case, invasives are like rain: no matter how much we complain, ain’t nothing we can do bout it.


    1. Very interesting points, Walter. I may bring this up in my next blog, but would people still have such strong feelings about European Starlings if they resembled, let’s say, Baltimore Orioles or Northern Cardinals? Food for thought.


    2. Not much we can do about it…?

      Well, not only is there much that can be done, but there is much that IS being done about it.

      While some may just think about invasives “displacing native species,” there are others whose livelihood is destroyed by invasive species, like the starling. And they’re doing a lot to protect themselves.

      Just some examples:

      Nevada: https://www.nevadaappeal.com/news/lahontan-valley/wildlife-services-nda-to-begin-eradicating-starlings/

      Maine: https://www1.maine.gov/dacf/php/gotpests/othercritters/factsheets/starling-ICWDM.pdf

      Missouri: https://mdc.mo.gov/wildlife/nuisance-problem-species/invasive-species/starling-control

      Nothing wrong with both loving nature and taking actions to protect human lives and investments. A delicate balance and the nature of nature.


      1. Thanks for chiming in again. Walter may have a point, though, in that eradication efforts are localized and might not have an effect on entire populations at all. So, in that sense, not much can be done.


      2. Hi Kent,

        It saddens me whenever I see news reports like the ones you’ve provided here. Killing wildlife without first having taken steps to prevent damage to crops is the lazy man’s way of doing business. For example, in big cities, shop owners close gates and lock them to keep thieves out. Yet farmers seem to think they can just put crops into the ground and leave grain on the ground when feeding cows, and wildlife is somehow supposed to know it’s not welcome at the table. How ridiculous is it for people to not realize that if you leave food out, you are going to attract animals?

        Farmers need to learn to manage their activities in a way that makes sense. They should exert themselves to clean up spilled grain or not put so much out in the first place that it’s not all eaten by their farm animals. Yes, this means work, but that is what’s required in life.

        They should get guard animals to protect farm animals instead of wiping out our predators (wolves, coyotes, cougars). In Virginia, farmers claimed vultures were killing lambs and calves, which doesn’t ring true because these big birds aren’t built to be predatory. I looked into this extensively so I could write commentaries against the idea that farmers should be allowed by law to kill vultures. Thanks to you-tube, I found farmers didn’t know what they were looking at. One video claimed to show a vulture after a calf. What it actually showed were vultures waiting for the cow to expel the afterbirth so they could eat (and recycle) it! The vultures were not showing the least bit of interest in the recently born calf–they were following the mother around and waiting at her rear end!

        Lastly, it’s fantasy to expect to harvest every last bit of food from agricultural pursuits. Human activities take place in the real world which means you should expect to lose a bit of your crop, just as shop merchants realize there will be losses due to damage to merchandise and people who steal. Unfortunately, people seem to think it’s easier to just kill wildlife instead of making more effort to do things more sensibly and thus realistically. And, I should point out that the manner in which animals are killed is often done inhumanely, as with poison that causes much suffering.

        It’s morally wrong to do these things to sentient life forms just because someone can’t be bothered to take the steps necessary to minimize losses. Starlings are just the tip of the iceberg.

        You might find my commentary (link below) of interest.



  6. Exactly when do we consider “invasive species” native? House Sparrows are openly killed by those who think they threaten the survival of other, more desirable species, merely because those other species are more attractive to the eye. House Finches, at least, are non-native yet receive few complaints because their song is pleasing, their colors soothing. Starlings are fascinating birds. Their huge muritations remind us of not just the beauty of nature but its power as well. From my office in Cambridge, MA, I used to watch these huge flocks arrive on the scene in early winter. Then, the Red-tails and the Falcons would appear. The aerial battles, while decidedly one-sided, were spectacular to observe. Appreciating the damage they might or might not do to crops, we should also note farmers have traditionally shot hawks, crows, and even other birds they think might be impacting their crops. Labeling a species as “non-native” is not merely an excuse to kill.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All interesting, Robert, and thanks for your comment. It appears that an invasive, or non-native, species is labeled as such in perpetuity. Whether that’s fair or not, I don’t know. Also, and in agreement with what you wrote, I don’t think there’s any question that we tend to favor more colorful birds. We also tend to favor native birds. I asked this of a reader earlier “Would people still have such strong feelings about European Starlings if they resembled, let’s say, Baltimore Orioles or Northern Cardinals?” I could have also asked, “Would people still have such strong feelings about European Starlings if they were native?” Agree that starlings are fascinating, notwithstanding the problems they cause.


Please leave a reply - You may enter your name and email address if you'd like, but all fields are optional when leaving a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s