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Saving Starlings

Monday, May 25, 2015


A lot of people hate starlings. They're messy, sometimes obnoxious, and more than that they're nonnative, the ultimate condemnation if you're a birdwatcher or a natural history purist. 
Why would anyone help a starling?
It's complicated.

I got a comment in an unrelated Facebook thread from someone I didn't know. For those of you in FacebookLand, commenting on the Facebook wall of someone you don't know is the only way to get a message to them; any private message is going to their Other inbox, along with all the spammy proposals from impossibly handsome single men from the UK that all start: "Hello dearest I am captivated by your smile you seem to be a lovely lady..."

 Cynthia had found a baby bird on the ground at our local Applebee's, which, like most Applebee's, is ringed by parking lot. Ergo, there would be three choices as to species: Starling, house sparrow, and (long shot) American robin. 

Hi Julie my name is Cynthia and I was told you might be able to help me. Last night when leaving Applebee's we found I would guess a 8 day old baby blue jay. I run a rescue w 7 indoor cats at the moment 2 dogs and 3 goats. I am needing a rehome because I can not provide the safety for him/her. He is eating well and is uninjured. My number is xxxxxxxx if you could contact me I would greatly appreciate it.
photo by Cynthia Starling

My first response was nuh-uh.  

  • Julie Zickefoose Cynthia that is not a blue jay. It's a starling. Feed it dog or cat food soaked ground kibble. I can't take it. I can help you arrange transport to Columbus if you can't get there yourself. Ohio wildlife center 614 761 0134.
    Like · Reply · 1 · May 9 at 1:09pm

    Then I thought about it. I wanted to help this person who cared enough to hunt me down.

  • Julie Zickefoose Starlings tend to nest inside the signs at restaurants. Check the letters of Applebee's for straw sticking out from behind. If possible put it back In the nest.
    Like · Reply · 1 · May 9 at 1:11pm
  • Cynthia Starling Thank you. I bought night crawlers and broke them up and have been feeding him. I will contact Applebee's.

    Julie Zickefoose Good of you. Thank you for caring. They are such intelligent and lovable babies. Purina One kitten chow would offer more complete nutrition and is available in groceries. Best of course would be to try to poke him back up in the nest if it can be located.

I didn't hear any more. Now it gets interesting. I'm in town that same day, May 9, running a million Saturday errands, including getting Liam to the BMV for his learner's permit test, finding out we didn't have proper ID so would have to come back; buying him some summer shorts because he's run out of them, picking up plants and bales of potting soil and straw, banking, grocery shopping...the back of my car looks like this. The inside of my brain is considerably less attractive.

But as I'm driving by, I decide to go check out the situation at Applebee's, see if I can find where that nest might be, and see what the chances are, if any, that Cynthia might be able to reach it to dump the baby starling back in it. The first thing I see when I get there is a pair of starlings perched on the wooden fence around the Dumpster, holding food in their bills.  Well, there are the parents, and they're on the job. Good.

The next thing I see is a car in the parking lot with its driver's door open, and there is a woman in the front seat typing hurriedly on her phone. She happens to be posting this message. To me. 

  • Cynthia Starling OK I'm at Applebee's and there are so many more...I am afraid.

    I've never seen her before, but I know she has to be this mysterious savior named, ironically enough, Starling. I walk up, saying, "Hi Cynthia. Trying to find the starling nest?"
    I won't soon forget the relief and joy and momentary confusion that cross her face as she figures out that the cyber-world and the real world are in a delicious collision at this exact moment. 

    I'm not sure what little voice guided me to her car at 1:55 pm on a ridiculously busy Saturday, because I hadn't gotten the message she sent, but there we were, and we were going to solve this problem together.

    Next: Two more starlings fall out! Ack! Zick and Cynthia to the rescue!

My New Pet Box Turtle

Friday, May 22, 2015

A friend emailed to tell me her son had found a box turtle crossing Pike Street, midmorning, in the middle of Marietta's busiest street.

This is what happens when we kidnap box turtles off the roads and out of the woods they know and bring them to our homes, then put them in our backyards to "let them go."
They strike out looking for something they know, sometimes in ever-increasing concentric circles, sometimes in a jaggedy line. Mowers, dogs, coons, cats, roads be damned. I'm looking for home.

Pike Street is five lanes of unrelenting fast traffic, a plastic strip full of gas stations and mostly plastic food. (Although I excuse Bar-B-Cutie from this broad-brush assessment. Bar-B-Cutie has real food.)

My friend wanted to know if I knew anyone who wanted a pet box turtle.  As in, "Do you want a pet box turtle?" She knew who to ask.

Any more, the notion of keeping a box turtle, or any turtle, as a household pet is repellent to me. Who are we to put a wild creature (and a threatened one at that) capable of living 130 years in a glass tank, to limit its world to a few square feet, to take it out of the breeding population and drop it into solitary confinement for the pleasure of feeding and observing it? And where is the pleasure in that, anyway? I love box turtles with a passion, but as pets, I'll take a dog any day. And you know which dog.

I told her to bring him on out so I could keep him for life as a pet in my rather expansive backyard enclosure. He paddled his legs furiously when he saw the area where I plan to confine him. An imperfect solution, to be sure, but better, I think, than being crushed by tires or given a life sentence he never earned. This way, the places he wanders through will have food, shelter, water, and very few roads and cars. And, given the season, perhaps a mate or two.

Piker showed some signs of having been kept in captivity for some time, including an absolute lack of fear and a flanged rear shell, but he was in excellent health, nice and heavy. Not interested in food. All he wanted was to go. Interestingly, when he got out into the big turtle confinement space, he began showing more appropriate fear responses. The reptilian brain is a marvelous thing. 

The Bacon eyed this new addition to the family.

Pet. Hmmph.  That is not a pet. That is a client, a charge, a ward of your duchy.

Piker, because you are clearly a faulty pet, and you need to be taught what to do, here is what a pet does. A pet hauls large branchtes out of the woods and brings them to his person for a surprise game of tug-o-war. See? She is laughing now. This, and other antics which are well beyond your capabilities, makes her laugh. A proper pet makes his person laugh. Unnf. Unnf.

 Go, now, live long and prosper, Piker. Your pet services are no longer needed. She will be back to check on you in the morning. You stick around now.

Oh my. I like my new enclosure a lot better than the old one. It has several pools!
Think I'll do some exploring. 

It's heading for June, and by the looks of this place, there should be some brown-eyed girls out there I can dance for. I will stomp my feet, nod my head and ask them for their claw in marriage. 

Baby Bluebirds, Chickadee Eggs, Trashy Tree Swallows

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Still checking bluebird boxes on May 6. It was a big day, enough to make three posts out of it! And I love bringing you along. This stuff is just so cool, I have to share.

The Three Graces leaf out. I have been photographing them every time I pass. It's awesome to see the changes. 

Hendershot has four nice four-day-old bluebirds. I fool them into gaping by giving a little whistle. Easier to count them when they pop their heads up, as you shall see...

Driveway Mid has four two-day-old bluebirds. The hen seems to have removed a fifth, infertile egg. 
I have her down as having laid five, but poking down into the pile o' meat reveals nothing. Yes, they're hard to count. You kind of have to figure out what you're seeing each time you look into a box. You can't count heads, because you can't always see them. In this case, the chick at 6 o'clock in the lineup has its head under the chick at 9 o'clock, and the 12 o'clock chick has its wing over on the 1 o'clock chick and its head way over to 4 o'clock, and the 1 o'clock chick has its head tucked down. This makes me chuckle. But trust me, there are four chicks here in this sweet Celtic knot.

Here are some six-day-old bluebirds from my Old Studio box in our yard. They're smaller than the Warren #4 babies, though they're the same age. It's all about food. They're fine--the Warren babes are just abnormally fat and well-fed, being only three in number. You should see babies in a box where only one or two of the clutch hatches. Monsters!

There are some fun surprises in today's box check. Meadow Slot on our farm has E-Nor-Mous ten-day old bluebirds, five of them! Man, she got started early! Counting back, these hatched April 26, so she started incubating her clutch on April 12, meaning she started laying April 9. Whoo-ee. And I'm not feeding bluebirds this spring, either, so that tells me that Bill's mowing the meadow three times last season has improved the feeding grounds for our bluebirds. Or maybe she's just hot to trot. She'll have these fledged and be thinking about starting another nest while most are still feeding young in the box. The minimum turn around time for bluebirds from fledging a batch to starting the next clutch of eggs is about two weeks.

That's not very long. This amazing ebb and flow, and all the change and surprise in my bird boxes is is why I get so frustrated when I'm traveling and don't get around to check them at least once a week. All this wonderful stuff happens and I'm missing it. After running boxes since 1982, I still hate to miss a single little thing.

Surprises abound today. I had something start a moss and bark fiber nest in the meadow PVC box, and I thought it juuust might be a white-breasted nuthatch, since we keep seeing nuthatches perched out in the open on the snags we put up in the meadow. I was literally holding my breath. And then one day I came and found the nest all torn up, and tree swallows holding the territory. I was really disappointed, because nuthatch is my Holy Grail of baby birds I want to paint. I haven't had a nuthatch in a bluebird box since about 1984, in Connecticut, and it was on an old box that my landlord had nailed to a tree (bad, bad thing). And the babies were taken by a coon just before they fledged. Part of me has never gotten over that. And this is why you never, ever nail a nest box to a tree. 

So I was waiting with bated breath to see what would happen to this torn-up mossy nest--to see who built it. And it looked like the swallows had queered everything. 
Not so. 

For today, May 6, a Carolina chickadee bursts out of the box as I come up to it, and I find six precious little Carolina chickadee eggs in there! I can only guess that she had them hidden under the moss and they escaped the tree swallow's depredation. And she has prevailed! The tree swallows have moved to a wooden box nearby. Hooray!

It's a great year for chickadees on our place. Here's another nest in the garden box--an uncharacteristically late laying. This moss nest appeared overnight, and I think she's still laying as of May 6. We now have four active CACH nests with eggs, and another in the Oilwell box built, with no eggs. Not sure what's going on there. This is what makes checking such fun! This is the latest CACH egg laying I've ever had. Something must have happened to their first attempt. I find that chickadees are one-brood wonders, and they seem not to attempt nesting if it gets too late. It's one brood or nothing for them, at least in southern Ohio.

I am absolutely knocked over by the perfume coming in the windows from my heirloom lilacs. This is Aunt Lolly the Younger, who is heir apparent to the throne, as Aunt Lolly the Elder is slowly croaking in her shaded north exposure. I have to lop off one enormous trunk after another.  Hooray for The Younger! But I'm not counting The Elder out, no way. These are tough, tough plants. They really should be called tree lilacs--the biggest darn lilac I've ever seen.

 Up close. Swoon!

Bill for scale. Look at the size of those clusters! I planted this one about six years ago. It's headed for the top of the deck. I deliberately planted it where I could stand on the raised deck and someday swoosh my face in the blossoms. It will get that tall. I think I've found The Perfect Spot for it, don't you?

 Speaking of tall, I had to move Hibiscus "The Path" to the front porch. She was bumping her head on the ceiling of the greenhouse, and it's too hot in there now for anything but peppers and tomatoes. They love heat. My fuchsias, hibiscus and jasmines, not so much. Out they go!

One last surprise in the Meadow Wood box. Here's what tree swallows do when they can't find any nice white feathers for their nests. When they can't find any feathers at all. They use beech leaves, tinfoil, and cellophane. Awww. Poor little things. On a whim, I tore some feather-like strips from my bluebird notebook and let them fly on the breeze. The tree swallow who built this nest watched intently, its flat little head pivoting, as they fluttered by him. I'm betting they end up in his nest. Don't worry. I'm going out to buy them some goose feathers this afternoon.

Thus ends the box check. But it's never over, not until August. So there will be more babies to come!

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