John Olson's Starlings *

Starlings annoy me. I cannot say why. Partly, it has to do with their numbers. Their murmurations, as they are called. They swarm, teem, hunt and peck everywhere with great aggression. Their speckled, greenish-purple bodies have a gloss that gives them the appearance of being greased. Greased for aggression. They drive out bluebirds and woodpeckers. They carouse in the millions. A murmuration of starlings will eat 20 tons of potatoes and foul what they leave behind. They spread histoplasmosis (a disease of the lungs similar to tuberculosis caused by a fungus), gastroenteritis virus, and cherry blossom brown rot. In 1960 a Lockheed Electra stirred up 10,000 starlings as it left Boston’s airport. The plane went straight into the tumultuous murmuration. It engines strangled on the starlings and 62 people died. Crews from the Oregon Department of Transportation once spent an hour firing a propane-powered orchard cannon on the southbound span of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia river between Vancouver and Portland in an effort to persuade the murmuration to murmur elsewhere. Did it work? I cannot say. 

        Compared to crashed planes and lung disease, my complaints are frivolous. My health and well-being have not been compromised by rampant murmurations. Starlings are common. But so are pigeons, seagulls, sparrows, robins, and crows. I am indifferent to pigeons, entertained by the swoop and glide of seagulls, diverted by the quickness and buffoonery of sparrows, regaled by the chirp of robins, and fond of crows. I enjoy all these birds. It is not a matter of number. 

        My complaint with starlings has to do with something else. I believe it is their ill-humor. Starlings are grouchy. Humorless. Everything they do they do in a spirit of propagation. But propagation to no purpose other than propagation. Propagation for the purpose of propagation. Humorless, rigorous, Spartan reproduction. 

        And I find this spirit of diligent reproduction deeply ironic, considering the fact the starling is not a native bird. They were introduced to the United States in 1890 by a drug manufacturer named Eugene Scheiffelin who decided that New York should be home to all of Shakespeare’s songbirds. It is hard to think of a starling as a songbird, much less a creature of one of Shakespeare’s plays. It strikes me as a situation where the word exceeds the dullness of its reality. 

        Starling is a pretty word. Murmuration is a pretty word. The starling, in its speckled, greenish-purple reality, is something more than pretty. It is banal. Pretty but banal. Pretty in its banality. As if something pretty as a pearl or an ingot of gold might suffer a similar fate. How does something intrinsically pretty become banal? Or is the banality in the murmuration of the starling a murmuration that is in me, a capacity for banality that resides under my skin? This, I find, may well be the case. When I find myself sliding into banality I do the natural thing. I do what is most expedient. I bring out a volume of Shakespeare and plunge into it. Immerse my being in it. Immerse my being in its words. Its starlings and storms. Its great huge storms and bright, iridescent birds. Its cobs and pots and mausoleum worms. Its fruits and dishes. Its oceans and words. It isn’t long before all those cobs and pots and storms and worms bring about a difference in me. Precisely what, I cannot say. But a starling seems more than a starling, and a savor is more than a taste. 

*Starlings and more work by John Olson will appear in Sleepingfish 0.875. Starlings is from the book The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat, available from Calamari Press

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