Thursday, November 20, 2014

The First Bird

They arrived on a Wednesday, in a box labeled honey baked ham. I rushed around teaching, meeting, and answering emails. The box sat. I knew what was inside, but I needed time to open it. Time to carefully inspect the cold little bodies inside. Time to respect their terminated lives. And I wanted to be alone with them.

The box felt heavy and damp as I carried it. It was 12:14pm when I arrived in the lab to unpack my frozen gift. My hands trembled. I have been dreaming of their nuanced intraspecific diversity for many months. Subtle differences between individuals of the same species will tell us something new. It’s different than the great variation we see between wildly divergent species. It’s quieter. Newer.

I pulled through two tightly knotted plastic bags. There they were. In a heap, not a flock. In a pile, not a murmuration. One man’s trash. I lifted the first bird. It’s neck was crooked, it’s eyes gently closed. Dignified, even in death. Tawny brown head, it was a juvenile in its last autumn plumage. I set it down in the afternoon sun.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

the bird that isn't a bird

“They are not considered birds, they are not considered birds”, the ornithologist repeated. They are exempt from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You don’t need a permit to kill them. According to the IUCN Invasive Species Specialist Group, they are one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world. European starlings in North America are reviled for their ecological, agricultural, and aeronautic troublemaking.

In 1960, a flock of ~20,000 starlings caused one of the worst airplane bird strikes in history. During take-off the birds were ingested into the engine, causing power loss, and eventually a sideways crash. Sixty-two people were killed. Starlings wreak havoc on farms. They eat the most proteinaceous plant parts, meant for cows, which effects the quality of milk production. Their guano can transmit diseases such as histoplasmosis and E.coli. They also compete with native birds for nesting sites. 

Wildlife control agencies end the lives of millions of starlings every year. These birds are killed creatively. They are trapped, gassed, poisoned, their cervical vertebrae dislocated. In 1890, when starlings first arrived in North America, their were no commercial airplanes, and many fewer cows. I wonder when they were first recognized as problematic? Perhaps not at the outset, allowing them time and space to properly invade. 

All of this is to say, we shouldn’t hate these birds. But we should be cautious not to love them either. No point in getting carried away about their beauty, gregarious nature, or skills of mimicry. That is the type of sentimental thinking that launched this invasion. But, from an evolutionary perspective, I think we have something serious to learn from our unwelcome guests. Their morphological, behavioral, and dietary adaptations are noteworthy. Their population expansion nothing short of astonishing. So, to understand some central concepts in evolutionary biology—variation within species, adaptation to novel environments, and reproductive success—it’s fitting that we turn to the starlings. Even stripped of the honor of being called a bird, and despised for legitimate reasons, the starling still has scientific stories to tell.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

something about starlings

It wasn’t until I reached my office, safe from the crowds, that I knew. I sat in my chair, and stared at my lifeless companions with a new respect. I felt pleasantly betrayed. I had no idea they would elicit that reaction. When museum visitors saw them, they whispered, and pointed, and grabbed. It was as if I was wheeling around miniature feathered rock stars. People wanted a piece of them. And badly.

Starlings arrived in New York City in 1890. Sixty individuals were released in Central Park as part of an effort to populate the park with each bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. It was a wonderful, awful idea. Sentimentally driven, ecologically ignorant. Today there are ~200 million starlings in North America. This is not considered good. They are an invasive species; raiding crops, outcompeting native birds, and interfering with aircraft. Part of their success lies in their dietary flexibility. I once saw two starlings fighting over a piece of prosciutto on Columbus Ave. They were both holding it in their beaks. It was strung between them like a salty ribbon in an only-in-New-York Disney scene. They flapped, and pulled, and snapped. 

Sturnus vulgaris are, what I would consider, beautiful birds. In spring and summer, they sport a striking iridescent radiance, paired with a shock of yellow beak. In fall and winter, they take on modest brown plumage, flecked with little light colored “stars”. The origin of their name. They are ubiquitous, and decidedly unspecial by ornithological standards. From an ecological perspective, they are downright hated. Starlings are remarkable for their boldness, not for their rarity. They flourish in urban environments throughout the world; Europe, South Africa, New Zealand. Starlings still live in Central Park today, and all around the museum, aggressively pecking at the grass and forming peaceful groups with their inelegant associates, the pigeons.

My four starlings were dead. Taxidermied specimens for education and research. Clustered together in silence on my rolling cart. Not singing, or flying, or behaving. I was walking through the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. One of the most spectacular and impressive dinosaur exhibit halls in the world. But T. rex had nothing on my starlings. Nevermind that, evolutionarily, birds are avian dinosaurs, or that many starlings were alive and flourishing all over the museum lawn at that very moment. There is something about a specimen. The stillness. The oldness. The perceived specialness. But I think it was also a little about the birds too. One specimen was from winter, the other three summer. Spectacular in a kind of ordinary glory.