Oh, the Wonder—and Ugh, the Disgust!

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People seem to either really like or loathe starlings. Videos of these creatures’ aerial maneuvers have become Internet sensations. On the other hand, agriculture officials frequently regard the birds as avis non grata, going so far as to employ mass extermination measures in the United States. What’s with both all the love and so much hate?

Those Amazing Murmurations

A murmuration, the name for a group of starlings, is an amazing sight, something my wife likens to a moving sculpture in the sky. “Murmuration” is also the title of a short online viral video posted a few years ago by Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith. In their footage, the young women are paddling in a canoe before coming across a sudden swarm of starlings. Their recorded close encounter immerses viewers in nature’s serendipitous beauty, each sweeping movement a spectacle of wonder. Watching the feathered formations bound in flight over Ireland’s River Shannon must have been something special. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, we can partake in their experience vicariously.

“A Bird Ballet,” Neels Castillon’s short film from Marseille, France, evokes similar feelings of amazement. Both his and the “Murmuration” videos are professionally edited and include music. Occasionally, one hears the wowed responses of those shooting the footage. However, the rhythmic sky dance of starlings is so mesmerizing that I prefer watching with the sound muted. No enhancements necessary!

There’s nothing like seeing starlings fly en masse. In the poem “Starlings in Winter”, Mary Oliver refers to the birds as “acrobats.” She marvels at how “they float like one stippled star that opens, becomes for a moment fragmented, then closes again” (1). Of course, she’s just one of many poets that these birds have fascinated. Once while watching a murmuration during a coach ride, Samuel Taylor Coleridge compared the shapeshifting formations to “smoke” and “mist”, always in flux, “expanding or contracting, thinning or condensing … thickening, deepening, blackening!” (2)

Thousands of these creatures engage in ever-changing flight maneuvers somehow without getting tangled and crashing—that’s the spectacular thing about murmurations! How do these birds do this? In the 2014 book The Thing with Feathers, ornithologist Noah Strycker devotes an entire chapter to starling flocks. There he discusses how a collection of the birds form a magnetic system while in flight, and why the number seven is significant in this process. Due to these discoveries, researchers can now generate models that successfully predict the aerial patterns of a murmuration based on its size (3).

For Many, Still Avis Non Grata                                         

Strycker touches as well on humans’ love-hate relationship with starlings. He writes about the “Murmuration” video that garnered millions of views in just a matter of days, and also of Google search results easily confirming starlings as “America’s most hated bird” (4). Only introduced to North America in 1890, the European starling ranks today among the ten most populous avian species on the continent. With millions migrating across the country, starlings are generally regarded as an invasive pest. Strycker questions whether the birds deserve their negative reputation (5). Nevertheless, for nearly 50 years, a pesticide has been employed to poison these birds. It’s a practice that continues to this day.

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that multitudes of dead starlings had been discovered in the northern parts of Nevada. At first, many residents were uncertain as to what had happened to the birds. People learned later, though, that the United States Department of Agriculture had used DRC-1339, a chemical sometimes referred to as Starlicide, to kill them. In that article, an official provides the rationale for the baiting and extermination of the starlings: “Bird feces can contaminate food and water sources, putting cattle at risk for salmonella and E. coli infections if ingested” (6). In short, the measure was performed for the sake of public safety.

The U.S. has used this chemical since 1967 to kill starlings. Once ingested, the agent quickly damages a bird’s heart and kidneys, often resulting in death within one to three days. Officials have also employed DRC-1339 to control populations of pigeons, mynas, gulls, blackbirds, ravens, crows, and other birds (7, 8, 9). Proponents of the compound tout that its toxicity is quickly degraded by exposure to sunlight and moisture. Also, most raptors, with the exception of owls, are not sensitive to the chemical. So birds of prey, as well as many mammals, that may consume the dead starlings are deemed safe. Cats, however, are at risk, and research indicates that the chemical can be “moderately toxic to fish” (10).

A Balancing Act

Several animal organizations continue to frown upon employing DRC-1339 baits. Both the National Audubon Society (11, 12) and the Humane Society of the United States (13, 14) have been critical of its use. Despite claims that DRC-1339 is relatively safe, questions remain, especially regarding whether such mass-killing measures are warranted. And the debate looks to continue, especially with the recent bad publicity in Nevada. In the balance hangs the considerate treatment of wildlife on one hand and the well-being of cattle and crops on the other.

Starlings are marvelous beings, easily adapting to and flourishing in new environments. While their feathered formations awe many folks, the birds still provoke fear and revulsion in others. The dynamics of how humanity perceives these creatures persist in closely bound, twisting motions just like their flight patterns. Acrobats indeed.

Sources:

  1. Oliver, M. “Starlings in Winter.” Best Poems Encyclopedia: http://www.best-poems.net/mary_oliver/poem-13085.html.
  2. Dee, T. Year on the Wing: Four Seasons in a Life with Birds. New York: Free Press, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2009. p. 113.
  3. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. pp. 43-48.
  4. Strycker, N. pp. 29-30, 39-40.
  5. Strycker, N. pp. 40-43.
  6. Griffith, M. “Feds Under Fire for Mass Killings of Starlings in Nevada,” 3/24/2015. Associated Press. MSN.com: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/feds-under-fire-for-mass-killings-of-starlings-in-nevada/ar-AA9WqTh?ocid=AARDHP.
  7. Feare, C.J. “The use of Starlicide® in preliminary trials to control invasive common myna Acridotheres tristis populations on St. Helena and Ascension islands, Atlantic Ocean.” Conservation Evidence (online journal), Vol. 7, 2010. pp. 52-61: http://www.conservationevidence.com/collection/7.
  8. “Compound DRC-1339 Concentrate—Staging Areas.” Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001. United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/nwrc/publications/Tech_Notes/TN_DRC1339StagingAreas.pdf.
  9. “DRC-1339 (Starlicide).” Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001. United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/nwrc/publications/Tech_Notes/TN_DRC1339Starlicide.pdf.
  10. “DRC-1339 (Starlicide).” Tech Note: Wildlife Services, 4/1/2001.
  11. Jonsson, P. “Bye Bye Blackbird: USDA acknowledges a hand in one mass bird death,” 1/20/2010. The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2011/0120/Bye-Bye-Blackbird-USDA-acknowledges-a-hand-in-one-mass-bird-death.
  12. Williams, T. “Red Baiting,” 11/2001. Audubon Magazine (online archive): http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/incite/incite0111.html.
  13. “What to Do About Crows,” 10/3/2009. The Humane Society of the United States: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/crows/tips/solving_problems_crows.html.
  14. Griffith, M.
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Migrations to the Moon: When Common Sense Flies South

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Three to four hundred years ago many people actually thought birds were capable of flying to the moon or hibernating on the seafloor. Of course, some folks at that time also believed barnacles could grow into a particular species of goose. Yes, a lot of strange ideas existed before the advances of modern science. Popular but erroneous beliefs included notions that smaller birds caught rides on the bigger birds, and that cranes, in their annual travels, preyed on Pygmies.

Under the Sea or Beyond the Sky?

Obviously, the understanding of birds’ migratory habits was rudimentary at best. Certain birds, such as the cuckoo and swallow, would appear around spring and disappear during the winter. People noticed this cycle, but as to how and why the birds vanished and came back was not so clear. One idea was that some birds, like several mammals, simply slept away the winter. Olaus Magnus, Swedish historian and archbishop, in his 1555 work Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, appeared to think this about swallows, for he writes that fishermen had been known to pull these hibernating birds up from the sea with nets (1, 2, 3).

Magnus’s report on swallows, of course, seems today nearly as incredulous as the 1703 pamphlet “An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming.” This document actually claimed that birds migrate to the moon (4, 5). And, no, this is not a joke!

Imagining our winged friends on a lunar flight or residing under the sea is quite far fetched today. The strained logic behind such mistaken notions, however, is still understandable. After all, the last time some people may have seen certain birds was probably as they were flying over a large expanse of water or beyond the horizon at evening time. Folklore, with its strong associative leanings, could have simply connected the birds’ destination with the last place they were observed.

What was Aristotle Thinking?                           

Even the ancient Greeks, despite their many contributions to science and philosophy, were susceptible to incredible stories. One of the most fascinating accounts of bird migration comes from Homer’s Iliad (Book 3: 1–6), which describes cranes attacking Pygmies (6). Moreover, Aristotle—yes, the great classical philosopher—notes the Pygmies’ African location in his History of Animals (Book 8: Chapter 14). Actually, in his landmark work, the first extensive biology book of antiquity, Aristotle provides the most original detail of any classical writer on birds. Unfortunately, he promotes quite his share of misconceptions, too.

To account for the annual appearance and vanishing of different birds, Aristotle cites migration, but he does so along with a couple other alternate means. For instance, some feathered creatures, he claims, can morph from one species into another, such as redstarts transmuting into European robins and back again (Book 9: Chapter 26). Also, according to Aristotle, several birds, including turtledoves, thrushes, starlings, and some swallows, hide away slumbering for months in seclusion, basically hibernating until warmer weather arrives (Book 8: Chapter 18). Interestingly enough, notwithstanding such off-the-wall notions, Aristotle wasn’t completely wrong about hibernation. Scientists have recently learned that a few birds, such as the common poorwill and swallow, can rest in torpor during brief cool periods (7). Of course, though, they don’t sleep under water, as Magnus asserted.

Despite numerous missteps, our ancestors were clearly not clueless. Thousands of years ago, many people realized that at certain times bird populations traveled from one region to another. References to such cycles can be found in other ancient texts, such as the Bible (e.g., Job 39:26–30, Jeremiah 8:7), Herodotus’s The Histories (e.g., Book 2: Chapter 22), and Aristophanes’s plays The Birds and The Knights. So, at the very least, ancient people seemed aware when seasonally certain birds arrived and departed.

Of course, by today’s standards our knowledge of bird migration has matured considerably. For more on the intriguing history of how this understanding has developed, including a particular white stork’s important role in the process, please check out this blog post from a scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration,” Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  2. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration,” Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  3. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  4. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”
  5. Bond, A.
  6. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R.
  7. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”

Not just another Blog on Birds

First Post Pic-Triptic

This blog is dedicated to the significant roles birds play in our everyday lives. Testimony to our feathered friends’ importance, of course, already lies in the many websites that provide tips for birdwatchers, instructions for setting up bird-feeding stations, and forums for photographs and first-person accounts from birders. Such online resources offer abundant materials for learning more about these wonderful winged creatures. But this blog seeks to make something available online that’s a little different but also essential, focusing instead on the cultural influence of birds upon human society and the numerous ways in which they have enriched and continue to impact our world.

We exist with all things, including birds, in relationship, and not in a vacuum or isolation. So the weekly posts here will seek to explore how our current and historical depictions of birds can help us better understand ourselves, appreciate their influence, and improve our interaction with them. After all, humans’ relationship with class Aves is extensive, spanning back further than civilization itself. Evidence from diverse locations ages ago reveal how birds influenced the earliest forms of art and religion. Ornithologist Tim Birkhead explains, “Images of birds decorate the walls of European caves; in Africa the forms of birds were chipped out of slabs of hot, red sandstone; and in Arctic chambers the skulls of great auks were placed alongside the dead to accompany them to the next world” (1). Over time, ideas about birds developed throughout all cultures into countless myths, legends, and superstitions.

Birds also figure prominently in world literature, religious scriptures, and other stories. In the Bible, we find several instances, such as Noah’s dove (Genesis 8:8–12) and Elijah’s ravens (I Kings 17:2–6). Other notable examples exist in Aesop’s Fables, the Buddhist Jataka, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar’s Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr (The Conference of Birds), and tales collected by Hans Christian Andersen (e.g., “The Ugly Duckling”) and the Brothers Grimm (e.g., “The Six Swans”). Even William Shakespeare’s plays frequently refer to bird folklore.

Poets, of course, have long been fascinated by birds. Nobel laureate Pablo Naruda dedicated an entire book to them with his Arte de Pajaros (Art of Birds). One of Ted Hughes’ most well-known books remains his Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. His wife Sylvia Plath, however, seemed drawn to the rook, another member of the Corvidae family, which appears in at least four of her poems. Perhaps the bird best known from poetry remains the nightingale, memorialized in classical mythology and having inspired important works by T. S. Eliot, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Milton.

Folktales and legends about birds have also informed classical music masterpieces, including P.I. Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake and Richard Wagner’s operas Seigfried and Lohengrin. Also, some songbirds even have interesting connections to famous composers. For instance, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a pet starling that could sing part of his Concerto in G Major (2, 3). Antonio Vivaldi found the European goldfinch a worthy enough muse to name a flute concerto for it (Il Gardellino). And British musician David Hindley has discovered similarities in the skylark’s song with aspects of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the woodlark’s with J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (the 48 Preludes and Fugues) (4, 5).

Humankind’s affection for birds has infiltrated just about every aspect of our culture, including movies, fine art, advertising, sports, common idiomatic expressions, and pop songs. It also has impacted history in some interesting ways. So this blog will not just be another website on birds. It will look at how we humans view our winged neighbors, hopefully illustrating the many invaluable functions that birds provide for us.

Sources:

  1. Birkhead, T. The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008. p. 3.
  2. Ibid. p. 259.
  3. West, M.J., and King, A.P. “Mozart’s Starling,” American Scientist, 1990, 78: pp. 106–14.
  4. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. pp. 23, 52.
  5. Davies, G.H. “Bird Songs,” PBS: http://www.pbs.org/lifeofbirds/songs.