Monday, June 12, 2017

learning to be a starling

It’s that time of year. The early summer, filled with wholesome expectations and tinted with the soft pain of change. The young starlings are out of their nests and on the city sidewalks. I saw one tweeting madly this morning, alone on a black metal fence. They are a modest deep grey now, unlike their more colorful, ostentatious parents. They look surprisingly large-bodied and grown up, especially for only 25 days old or so.

This year, for the starling project, the students created some truly beautiful bird skins. By that I mean they gutted the birds, turned the skin inside out, removed remaining bits of flesh, filled their body cavity with cotton, sewed them back together, and rearranged the plumage until they were returned to a bird-like body form again. This procedure is done to preserve the bird skin for future research purposes. Ornithologists who know how to do this, really know how to do it, but most people in the world, don’t. The process resembles cooking boldly and then carefully (but not eating), mending a ballet slipper, and petting a flower without losing petals. It requires a toughness, but also an extreme gentleness.

We could not have anticipated how much our students would excel at this new, sometimes disgust-inducing, precarious art. But they did.

The birds for our project are culled from airports, so they don’t fly into aircraft. Approximately 2 million starlings are killed this way every year (though this hardly puts a dent in the population of ~200 million in North America). Depredation methods range from trapping, cervical dislocation, and sometimes gunshot. Our birds this year had tiny holes in their skins from the latter. The students ever-so-gently mended the micro-tears in the skins. It would have been easy to: 1) give up. 2) make the mistake of creating a larger hole by tugging the delicate skin. But they didn’t.

The juvenile birds in particular, have slightly thinner skins than the adults (see image above, and the bird all the way to the right in the bottom picture). I love the idea of the students mending the young birds, and learning to be scientists. And I love to see the juvenile starlings, out of the nests now, learning to be starlings. 

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