Wednesday, January 06, 2010
By JONATHAN ROSEN
European starlings have a way of appearing in unexpected places — the United States, for example, where they are not native but owe their origin to a brief reference in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.” In 1890, a drug manufacturer who wanted every bird found in Shakespeare to live in America released 60 starlings in Central Park. After spending a few years nesting modestly under the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History, they went from a poetic fancy to a menacing majority; there are now upward of 200 million birds across North America, where they thrive at the expense of other cavity nesters like bluebirds and woodpeckers, eat an abundance of grain — as well as harmful insects — and occasionally bring down airplanes.
In Europe, where the birds are native — Mozart had a pet starling that could sing a few bars of his piano concerto in G major — they still have the power to turn heads. Each fall and winter, vast flocks gather in Rome. They spend the day foraging in the surrounding countryside but return each evening to roost. (Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” called the birds reverse commuters.) They put on breathtaking aerial displays above the city, banking in nervous unison, responding like a school of fish to each tremor inside the group.
The birds are beloved by tourists and reviled by locals — understandably, since the droppings cover cars and streets, causing accidents and general disgust. A flock of starlings is euphoniously called a “murmuration,” but there is nothing poetic about their appetites. Their ability to focus both eyes on a single object — binocular vision — allows them to peck up stationary seeds as well as insects on the move. In the countryside outside Rome, they feast on olives. Like us, the birds are enormously adaptable but what we admire in ourselves we often abhor in our neighbors.
When I was fifteen I was hospitalized for quite a while, first in isolation while they figured out what was wrong, and then in a private recovery room. The days were tolerable, but the evenings depressing. Each sunset an enormous flock of starlings darkened the sky.
Dusk near the winter solstice is the most depressing of times for me.
The diagnosis was viral encephalitis.
I had a nightmare while in the hospital. I dreamed I had 6 webbed toes on each foot.
I also fell in love with my nurse, something I've never disclosed before.