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Letter of Recommendation: Starlings - The New York Times


Each day along the upper railings of my top-floor Brooklyn apartment’s fire escape, starlings alight and start holding forth in an ever-­evolving chorus of clown whistles, clicks and shards of expert mimicry. I’ve heard everything from them over the years: other bird calls, human voices, car horns, jackhammers, backup beeps, snippets of ice-cream-truck jingle. Even brief, flyaway strains of Sinatra and the Beatles, no doubt snatched from the pair of tattered speakers that the owner of Love Liquors sets out in front of his store each day alongside a huge plastic effigy of the rum pirate, Captain Morgan.

The birds’ phrasings are both melodic and mechanical, cyclical and spontaneous, like the wordless vocables of scat singers. With the wide sky setting off their plump, white-­flecked black plumages, they often remind me of my Sicilian aunts in their polka-­dot dresses, chatting away in front of the narrow brick rowhouse I grew up in on East 37th Street out in Flatlands, Brooklyn. Certain birds are renowned for their ability to craft elaborate nests and roosts; some I’ve seen in Africa are veritable apartment buildings like mine, with private entrances to an array of separate flask-­shaped chambers. Starlings, for their part, weave habitable nests of song, ones in which I’ve long been taking up residence.

In America, the starling’s presence can actually be traced back to a single passing reference to the bird in “Henry IV.” The story is by now well known (and oft-­lamented): how on March 6, 1890, one Eugene Schieffelin, chairman of the American Acclimatization Society, decided that in keeping with the society’s commitment to introduce into America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare, he would release a pod of 80 European starlings in Central Park. Despite that day’s driving sleet (and the fact that none of the society’s previous Shakespearean inductees, like the skylark and the nightingale, had survived), this inaugural flock managed to ride out the rest of that winter of 1890, some under the eaves of the nearby American Museum of Natural History. Today the North American starling population is well over 200 million and counting.

It was an evolutionary duet between two seemingly disparate body parts that ensured the starling’s extraordinary success. Specialized muscles in their beaks allow them to open even when stuck firmly into the hardened winter earth in search of food. Their eyes, meanwhile, have come to be situated in the narrow front of their face, affording them a more intensely focused, binocular vision — prying beaks and eyes coalescing to form the perfect foraging and nesting machine.

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