BY: MARIA JOSE BURGOS
Let’s start at the very beginning. That way, the Bard can have a hand in the story.
In 1890 and 1891, an eccentric German immigrant named Eugene Schieffelin, member of the American Acclimatization Society, released 100 European starlings in New York’s Central Park.
Schieffelin’s plan was to introduce every bird mentioned in William Shakespeare’s plays into the United States. Shakespeare, it seems, was a bird lover. More than 60 species of birds have been identified by ornithologists in his work.
This is the tale of the starling, a bit player, that appears just once, in Henry IV Part 1.
“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak/Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him/To keep his anger still in motion.”
In North America, the starling found a more than suitable stage. Today, 200 million of them reside in almost every corner of the continent — to the chagrin, annoyance and even fatality of many.
You see, when Schieffelin released the starlings, the effect of introducing non-native species into a foreign ecosystem was unknown.
He was thinking poetics, not ecology.
How could he have anticipated the billions of dollars in crop damage these little “rats of the sky” would cause?
How could he have anticipated that in 1960, these “feathered bullets” would fly into a plane’s engine as it took off from Boston’s Logan Airport, causing it to crash on the harbour, killing 62 people in the deadliest bird strike in U.S. aviation history?
It seems the starling, a glossy black bird with a short tail, white spots and a long, yellow bill, can’t help but be a major nuisance.
Even birdwatchers complain starlings eat all the fruits and seeds in feeders, drive attractive songbirds away. Starlings also have the most annoying chirping sounds.
But during a memorable few weeks this spring in downtown Fredericton, N.B., some neighbours on Saunders Street encountered one of the descendants of the Central Park experiment and came away with lessons in survival, friendship and perhaps even love.
The story began on a Thursday morning in late May, when Jon Robinson went to work and found a cardboard box with a hatchling inside.
The baby bird had fallen from its nest in the ceiling of the Able Orthotics warehouse. Gary, a staff member, found it and put it in the box. It was dehydrated, starving and very noisy.
Robinson, who is six foot tall and weighs 225 pounds, dug some worms and fed them to the bird.
After work, he took it home to Saunders Street and presented it to his partner, Jennifer Wiebe, a tall, blonde artist with an easy smile. They identified the bird as a starling, turned to Google for help and found a starling rescue website (of course.) It advised they lay off the worms and feed it dehydrated cat food — so they took some food from Patti Smith, their cat, and gave it to the starling.
Besides from trying to keep it alive, they had to protect it from Patti Smith, who didn’t move her eyes off the tiny bird.
Robinson didn’t think the bird would make it.
“It was small and seemed unhealthy,” he recalls.
But the starling survived the night in its box on their back deck. (Patti Smith was kept inside.)
“I carried it with me for a couple of days, like wherever I was. It needed to eat every 20 minutes it seemed.”
The bird started riding shotgun in his car.
“I thought, ‘We’ll raise it for a few days and figure this out as we go.’”
Even though they wanted to help the baby starling survive, Jon and Jen didn’t want to keep it. They already had their cat and two dogs, and well, lives of their own to live.
“I read in this website that if a starling is hand-raised as a solo bird it will bond to humans and will never really be a normal bird,” Jon says. “I was looking at a life-time commitment.”
After five days of non-stop starling parenting, he knew it was time to make a move.
That’s how Alphonsus Muise, who lives in the house next door, found his role. He’s a curious, bright 10-year-old, with orange hair, freckles and green eyes that sparkle when he speaks about animals.
“Alphonsus is very interested in nature, so we thought it would be a good fit,” says Jen.
And oh, it was.
Alphonsus’ favourite animal had always been the rat.
“I have two. Mr. Rat and Henry,” he says.
Alphonsus’ mom came up with the name for the starling.
“I don’t really know why Pippi but well, I guess why not?”
No one knew whether the starling was male or female; Alphonsus’ mom made the call. They picked up the starling at Jen and Jon’s house as soon as he received permission from his parents. Pippi was still in the box and barely able to stand up.
“It’s so funny, when the little boy took the bird, at first Jon was relieved, but then he was a little sad,” Jen says. He missed her.
But they knew Pippi was in good hands.
To everyone’s surprise, the tiny bird learned to fly the day after she arrived at Alphonsus’ house.
“Jen said it flew, but I didn’t think so,” Jon recalls. “Turns out that it had. I went out to the deck and it flew to me.”
Even though Pippi could fly wherever it wanted, it always came back to Alphonsus to be fed more cat food.
“After birds leave the nest, they are supposed to keep coming back to it to be fed by the mother for three months,” Alphonsus explains.
Then Pippi started making new friends.
“The next day I was in my porch and my neighbour from another house knocked on my window,” Jen says. “The bird was sitting on his shoulder. They didn’t know anything about it. I had to go tell them that I knew that bird and its story.”
Pippi’s been to at least four houses of the neighbourhood already.
“It has brought us together,” Jen says. “We moved here about a year ago and we met everybody, but taking care of the bird’s taken it to a new level.”
Pippi’s a lot of fun, but a starling is still a starling. Having one as a pet sounds cute, until it lands on you full speed ahead.
“I can’t go out to mark a paper because it’s all over me,” says John Muise, Alphonsus’ father, who is an English professor at St. Thomas University. “All I have to do is walk outside and it comes after me. It lands on top of my head. I’m afraid it will start talking or something.”
In fact, if Muise took her on as a student, Pippi might learn to talk. For hundreds of years, humans have been fascinated by the starling’s capacity for vocal mimicry.
Wolfgang Mozart reportedly kept a pet starling and taught it to sing a line of music he composed.
In his papers, Mozart noted the date he purchased his pet starling, its price and the musical fragment he’d taught the bird to whistle. He wrote beside this note: “Das war schon!” That was beautiful!
In more recent years, scientists have discovered starlings are sensitive to the human gaze, that they respond to the subtle movements of eyes. Which implies starlings are looking, trying to make contact.
This spring, the neighbours on Saunder’s Street were on the lookout for Pippi. They learned to recognize her voice, which sometimes came as an unwelcome early morning wake-up call.
From late May until mid-June, there wasn’t a day the starling didn’t stop by one of these houses. But gradually, Pippi became more independent.
She began stopping by every few days.
Alphonsus knows this is how it’s supposed to be. He understands Pippi is a pet that needs to learn to fend for herself. She needs to be free.
Until then, he’ll still enjoy Pippi when she comes around.
“I want her to keep coming back every once in a while,” he says.
In mid-June, Pippi hadn’t been seen on Saunders Street for about a week. Then the third Sunday in June in the morning, Jon heard her outside. He walked out on the deck and Pippi landed on his shoulder.
Call it a random act of nature.
Call it a Father’s Day miracle (that’s Jen’s preferred version.)
Or perhaps more accurately, it’s just a new scene in a very old play.