Sunday, May 31, 2015
It's May 25 as I write, and this ought to be fledging day for the three baby starlings Cynthia and I saved from almost certain death on the black mulch of an Applebee's.
Far as I know, they're plying the skies over Marietta now, voicing harsh churring calls, having soundly beaten the odds, with a lot of help from their friends.
On May 15, five days after we rigged up the makeshift nest box and installed the babies, brave, good Cynthia Starling went back to check on them. She found the parent starlings going in and out of the box, which had worked itself loose from where I'd wedged and taped it (no wonder, with three growing baby starlings bouncing around in it, and two chunky parents coming and going!). She messaged me to say it was "hanging by a thread" and she was going back that evening to reinforce it with bungee cords. I knew she was good as her word.
I marveled at the multiple small miracles here.
First, that Cynthia had found a perfect stranger on Facebook through other friends, one who knew what to do (allow the birds' natural parents to raise them) and what not to do (drive the durn things 140 miles to Columbus to take up a wildlife rehabilitator's time).
Second, that I'd happened by Applebee's just as Cynthia had arrived to look for the nest, only to find two more stranded baby starlings.
And at the precise moment she was messaging me about it, I walked up and introduced myself.
Poof! It's Zick!
Third, that we'd come up with a solution that actually worked. And that the Applebee's manager had looked the other way, bless him, as we crawled around in the shrubbery tearing up nightcrawlers. feeding starlings and making a bird nest box, watched by dozens of curious patrons of that fine establishment.
Miracle the Fourth: The starlings overcame their fear to visit my cobbled-together nestbox and raised the babies to fledging age.
The question remains, why would anyone do all this for three baby starlings?
Everybody knows starlings aren't worth saving. Starlings displace native cavity nesters; there are way too many of them, and they don't belong here anyway. Do we really need more starlings in the world?
(Readers in the UK, where starlings are native and on a mysterious, precipitous longterm decline, are saying YES!)
But we emphatically don't need more starlings outcompeting native cavity nesters in the U.S.A. Ask any flicker, red-headed woodpecker, purple martin or bluebird.
All true. But there are other forces at work here that strongly motivated me to intervene. And as I think about it, there are two forces that make me do this at all, for any bird, turtle, squirrel, what have you.
First is the inability to let a creature suffer without trying to help it. That's #1. Either you have that inability or you don't. I am richly endowed with that inability. Clearly, so is Cynthia.
Second, and probably more important in the big picture, is that wildlife rehabilitation is for the benefit of people, even more than it is for the wildlife being saved.
A certain percentage of all wild creatures born is bound to die. The natural fecundity of starlings more than makes up for three left to writhe on the mulch under an awning at Applebee's, a drama played out probably thousands of times each spring under hundreds of restaurant awnings nationwide. Even that bald eagle seen on the evening news, painstakingly brought back from being shot and released with great fanfare in a public ceremony, doesn't really "matter" in the grand scheme of things, if you ask a population biologist. There are more bald eagles hatched every year to take its place. I hate to say it, but on a wildlife population level, rehab is essentially meaningless, unless you're dealing with something critically endangered like whooping cranes, where an individual is a significant percentage of the population.
What is not meaningless is the people who care about wildlife. What is meaningful is that they cared enough to seek help for some hapless thing they've found. And to me, it doesn't matter if what they found is a house sparrow lying naked on a sidewalk, a starling found under an awning, or a peregrine falcon that has hit a window. What matters is honoring that they care. And in honoring them, carrying forward and spreading the compassion in ever-widening ripples on this big, often cruel, pond.
I stopped to help and build a nestbox and risk the wrath of a restaurant manager because I believe the world needs more people like Cynthia, and those two little girls who took pity and moved the starling babies under the shrubbery. We all start off caring deeply about the little things. I remember crying over each and every black molly that was born and died in the 5-gallon aquarium I kept as a kid. I remember the funeral I held for Sailor Bob, the tiny red-eared slider I kept in a plastic tank with a plastic palm tree, that I fed Hartz Mountain dried flies and kept in the back bathroom until he croaked from malnourishment. I remember the moment I realized my that my mother thought I was being overly sensitive about these minor stars in what would eventually be a firmament of pets. I was about eight, and I couldn't understand why she wasn't as upset as I about the fish, the turtle, the squashed mantis, the hurt baby bird. Well, when you're old enough to have an 8-year-old, and you've had five kids before she was born, and the eldest of them had to leave you when he was four, you've long since learned to ration your tears. You've seen real hardship and tragedy and you've known real sadness, and a floating fish doesn't qualify as tear material any more.
I understand that now. I get it, Mom. I was a huge pain in the butt, and I thank you for putting up with me, for nurturing the passion for wild things that still knows no bounds.
But knowing what's worth crying over doesn't mean the caring has to stop. Nor should it.
I went by the Applebee's not because I love starlings. (Even though I secretly do.)
I did it because I love people like Cynthia Starling, people who care. She didn't know what it was, she just knew it would die without her help.
photo by Liam Thompson
Postscript: These photos taken May 27, 2015, three days after Cynthia reattached the dangling nest box full of about-to-fledge starling babies.
Two churring gray juveniles with both parents, just above the nestsite in the middle slot. I could hardly believe I saw this and got this bad iPhone shot.
This is their foraging habitat. Which is amazing in itself, that any bird can consider a restaurant, a parking lot and a tiny patch of grass like this "habitat."