I’m a few days from releasing the first still shots from the Outlaws trailer, but in the meantime I thought I’d give everyone at peek at how things are progressing with our feathered friends. After dealing with this bunch, the term “bird brain” will have an entirely different meaning for me.
Hey, these guys are smart.
They’re clever, in a deductive, mathematical sort of way. When I present them with a new problem, you can see them figuring things out one element at the time. Shakey seems to be the most logical and, I suspect, female.
Last night I added a new bath for them, a tray tucked into a laundry basket surrounded on all sides by towels. They have to hop down through several tree branches to reach it. This simulates access to hidden pools of water in the wild. The other three took my word for it that this environment was safe. Not Shakey. She watched from a perch high above as they fluttered and splashed in the water. When they were finished, she slowly began to ease her way down. After several tentative runs through the obstacle course I had created, she started mapping the exits. Down, down, down, then up and out taking a different route each time. Only when she had several escape routes planned did she finally venture into the water and have a nice, long bath.
If I had to wager money on any one of the four being a successful release, I’d place all bets on Shakey. She’s aloof and suspicious, hates to be handled, and got her name from the way she shakes her food violently before swallowing. Simulating bug kills, maybe? Yeah, she’ll do just fine out there in the wild blue yonder.
I worry about Chip, though. He was the first to be rescued, the one who fell from the nest onto my concrete basement steps. Even though he’s only been in human hands one day longer than his siblings, he’s definitely the most tame. He flies to me and lands on my shoulder, my head, my laptop. . .he likes to sit near me and be social. I do plan to release him, but I figure he’ll be at the most risk because of his lack of fear. I hate that, too. He has the most pleasant personality.
Then there’s Big Mac, with the voracious appetite (I swear he could eat an entire Big Mac by himself.) He’s aggressive and will peck my hands when I reach for him. Melody is the shyest and has an ear for sound. She’s already composing little three and four note tunes—nothing remarkable, but still impressive for her age. She’s the easiest to identify at a distance because of the distinctive light barring around her eyes.
So how do I tell them apart? If you look carefully at the photos, you’ll see that everyone is wearing a different color nail polish on their little toes. Chip wears blue, Big Mac green, Shakey red, and Melody pink. How do I know if they’re male or female? I don’t. Starlings are nearly impossible to sex at such a young age. I’m just guessing based on body mass and temperament. It doesn’t matter one bit if I’m wrong, either.
Now that they’re flying, I’m sure many have wondered why I don’t release them. Premature release is the number one reason most amateur bird rehabs fail. Just because a baby bird can fly does not mean it knows how to live. In the wild, once a baby bird “fledges,” or flies from the nest, its mother will continue to feed it for several weeks as it flies around the neighborhood. Young birds haven’t a clue how to pick up food with their beaks, much less forage. One of the most entertaining things about these four right now is their efforts to grab items from the floor. They open their beaks wide, wide, wide, then scissor them back and forth repeatedly with no real idea that they should latch on to the desired item and hang on. They still gape to be fed and do not eat independently. This is a normal stage of their development and no cause for concern.
But they’re starlings, you say. They should be shot on sight, not released back into the wild. I know, I know. And on one level I agree. Starlings are an invasive species that wreak havoc on our native bird populations. They’re originally from Europe, but in 1890 the president of the “American Acclimatization Society” had the bright idea to introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. He released about sixty European starlings in Central Park, and since that time, the North American population of these birds has exploded.
Opinions of starlings can be quite polarized. The birds are highly intelligent, can mimic a wide variety of sounds including human speech, and make excellent, willing, and happy pets where such practice is legal. In the wild, they are so aggressive with feeding and roosting behavior that they can drive a milder native species completely from its territory. Large flocks of starlings pose a significant aviation risk and are, in fact, the documented cause of several crashes. In 2008, U.S. government agents poisoned, shot, or trapped more than 1.7 million European Starlings on American soil. I can’t bring myself to oppose such drastic measures, even though I’m a fan of starlings in general. I can’t personally bring harm to an animal in need, but I’m not blind to the bigger picture, either. I’m just as sympathetic toward a starving predator with young mouths to feed as I am toward its terrified prey. It’s an ethics quandary that will confound and confuse me for the rest of my life.