We could hear the nest for nearly a week. Those faint, plaintive squeaks that would erupt for a few moments then fall silent, just soft enough and irregular enough to distinguish small and young life from the background whistles, chirps, and cackles of suburban birds in spring. We tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the nest, scanning the nearby trees and rooftops when the birds would begin to chorus. The mother had done well, apparently; they were tucked away in a place that could only be reached by ear.
Then, one morning, my partner found a dead nestling on the sidewalk. “There’s a baby bird outside,” she told us. “Its eyes are still closed and it doesn’t have any feathers.” She scraped its tiny body off the cold concrete, wrapped it in a plastic grocery bag, and put it in the trash can. We assumed that it must have fallen out of its nest during the night, foolishly imaging that something better was waiting, beyond the safety of its home.
The next evening, my son and I were sitting on the front porch, reading Don Quixote, another story of a foolish adventurer. But instead of reading we found ourselves watching a northern flicker attack a starling nest that was suddenly easy to see, so bare and obvious and helpless. It was a small hole, the diameter of a tennis ball. About thirty feet in the air, it was drilled into a dying branch of the silver maple that takes up a corner of our front yard. Silver maples are not desirable trees. They grow quickly, but age quickly, too, often rotting from the inside. Some 90 years ago, these trees were an easy solution for developers attempting to turn farmland into a Detroit suburb. These days, they seem to be reaching peak decay, dropping pieces of themselves all over the streets, sometimes onto houses and cars.
As my son and I watched, the flicker attacked as the starling parents kept up their steady rotation of arrival and departure. Each time they carried a mouthful of protein-rich insects; even from thirty feet away, we could sometimes see their catch wriggling in their beaks. A starling would land at the lip of the hole, then disappear as the nestlings began to sing for their food. Immediately, the flicker would fly from a nearby branch and thrust the top half of its body into the hole, pecking at the starling and its offspring. The starling appeared to fight back, with fierce and angry squeaking and crackling noises; I could imagine it crouching defensively in its nest, covering its children. After a few moments of this back and forth, the flicker retreated to a nearby branch. Amazingly, the starling soon flew off, as if nothing unusual had happened. Its mate would appear a moment later, and the entire process started again. The flicker looked hungry, aggressive. A few of its feathers were twisted out of place from the skirmishes.
We could do nothing but watch this slow-moving home invasion in utter confusion. Was the flicker trying to eat the nestlings? But why was it only attacking when the parents would return? Maybe it was trying to literally steal food from a baby? And why were the starlings abandoning the nest so quickly, irrationally insisting that nutrition, not safety, was the most important thing in a child’s life?
I felt slightly sick, uncertain of what would come next. My son, who is ten and unshakably confident in any situation, began shouting loudly every time the flicker approached the nest, particularly when the bird started to attack in the parents’ absence, as I knew it would but didn’t want to admit to myself. I couldn’t tell if my son’s yelling intimidated the bird; it appeared to work, sometimes, as the flicker would retreat back to its branch from time to time. But it didn’t stay away long; in fact, the attacks seemed to escalate.
Then, suddenly, the flicker pulled a nestling entirely out of the hole in the tree. For a mere moment, the two birds were aloft, the flicker madly flapping its wings under the weight of the young starling almost half its size. Then the baby bird dropped, flipped through the air, wetly bounced once off a tree branch, and landed with a tiny thud on the front yard.
“Holy shit,” I whispered. “Did you see that?” I asked my son. He nodded, eyes large.
The nestling’s head was tilted askew on its impossibly thin neck. Its skin was grey and blue, creased opaquely over tiny bones and muscles, looking like the frail hand of an old woman. Its eyes were still closed. But it was breathing. My heart sank.
There was no way to get it back to the nest. Even if we had a ladder that tall, it was unlikely that the parents would take it back, and, even if they did, the homicidal lunatic of a scavenging flicker was still hovering, waiting. The likelihood that the nestling was internally hemorrhaging after that fall was very high. There was no way to keep him alive.
My son watched me kill the dying nestling with the blade of a shovel. I dumped his body in another grocery sack, which I added to our growing collection in the trash can. My partner brought some bleach and a paper towel so I could clean the blood off the shovel.
“Man, Dad,” my son said. “You’re cold.”
I didn’t want to be cold. I don’t think I’m cold.
I wish I could tell you a story about tender care, about nurture and sacrifice and lifting up the vulnerable. I really do. I wish I could narrate a lovely moment of discovering unexpected beauty and hope in the midst of a dark and desperate time. That’s not this story.
But I wasn’t cold. I was somber and shaky, as I always am when I have to move among the dying. I was nerves and anxiety because I was afraid. Afraid of watching the nestling die slowly, in the grass, as the night was falling. Or, amounting to the same thing, afraid of watching it die slowly under a bare light bulb in a shoebox on our porch as the result of some futile gesture to escape the inevitable. We’ve been down that path before; it never ends well. Two years ago, it was a blind infant squirrel that died in my partner’s hands as she tried to nurse it back from abandonment. We didn’t have the capacity for that kind of lingering suffering, especially not now. Not this particular spring.
Or maybe my son was right, and I’m just describing another kind of cold, that willingness to weigh a fragile and desperate life against your own absence of emotional fortitude.
Starlings have the peculiar and unusual fate of being ugly when individual yet beautiful in community. They are squat birds whose predominantly black feathers appear irregularly pockmarked with white spots and splotches. This makes them look dirty and oily, maybe even a bit diseased. They are also prolific; all spring they seem to be everywhere, shitting and fluttering their way across the neighborhood.
But when they flock, they are one of the most mathematically beautiful sights in the world. Their flocks are called “murmurations,” a word that onomatopoetically evokes the flutter of wings as thousands of birds take to the air. These murmurations appear as large clouds rolling across the landscape; as they move, the clouds doughnut and bend, morph and spin, gyrating and folding themselves into a thousand unpredictable formations.
A murmuration of starlings is a classic example of what is called an emergent phenomenon. Emergent phenomena occur when something unpredictable happens in a network through the interaction of its smaller components. In the case of the starlings, they produce these infinitely transforming shapes in the air by following a very simple set of responses to the neighbor starlings flying in their immediate proximity. As each starling acts, the others follow, and soon we have cascades, swells, waves, and, well, murmurs. Sometimes these giant, gorgeous shapes produce new responses from the starlings, feedback loops pouring energy back into the system. There is no central command, no design choreographing the movement. The starlings just respond to each other, and art happens.
The next day, just before lunch, I took the dog for a walk. The night before, the attack on the nest appeared to end in retreat; I had spotted the flicker eventually flying off to another tree, disappearing into the twilight. It must have decided scavenging was too much work; I was sure that it could not have been trying to eat the nestlings, as they were far too large. Or maybe it had underestimated their size. Maybe it was hungry, and its hunger was making it reckless.
After the walk, though, I arrived home to find two more nestlings on the ground. One was lying on the sidewalk; the other in the grass. I looked up in the tree, and could see that the flicker was back, again diving relentlessly and repeatedly at the hole. These nestlings for some reason looked older than their sibling from the night before; in addition to pinfeathers, they wore the thinnest white down, tiny hairs that wrapped their bodies in a diaphanous halo. The one on the sidewalk had opened its eyes; it feebly dragged its body with a tiny yellow beak.
I went to the door and announced the sad news. My partner was bitter and angry. “WHY is that flicker being such a JERK??” she yelled to me from across the house. “I swear,” my son said, “I’m going to get my BB gun and the next time I see him, bang!”
“You can’t do that,” I said. “He’s a woodpecker. They’re protected and stuff.”
And then, on impulse, maybe to get back at him for calling me cold, I asked my son if he wanted to be the one to handle the nestlings.
He sighed. “OK. I’ll do it.”
His definitive response made me feel guilty and irrational. What psychotic parent asks his kid to kill small animals? I had the immediate urge to take it back, but I knew if I told him to stop, told him that I shouldn’t have asked, that I would do it, he would take my reversal as an insult, as if I was somehow questioning his capacity to move in this fucked-up world of adult life.
So all I could say, maybe as penance for my lack of ceremony the night before, was, “and this time we’ll bury them properly.”
The young always need shelter. My son tells me, and I don’t know if this is true, that the first thing a newborn shark does is swim away from its mother as fast as it possibly can so that it does not become a postpartum snack. That sounds about right, about the way things go. The two nestlings went that way, too, quickly, without a shiver.
I used the shovel to carry the tiny lifeless bodies to a patch of soil behind our shed. My son disappeared. Maybe he forgot about the funeral. But then he was back, carrying a small cross of wood scraps joined together with a single roofing nail. I could tell he had just made it. I dug a small hole in the spring soil, which was generous and loamy.
After laying the baby birds alongside each other in the hole, we covered them in dirt. Using his feet, my son packed the soil.
“So animals don’t dig them up,” he said.
For added protection, we covered the tiny grave with sod. My son planted the wooden cross in the ground. There were no words.
As we walked back to the house, I tried to say something realistic and meaningful about the nobility of reducing suffering, and something about bearing witness to living things, no matter how small. Whatever I said came out lame and stupid, because what I really wanted to say, but couldn’t, was how pissed off I felt at the heartless indifference of the flicker. I hated it for making us finish its dirty work. I hated the excess and waste and uselessness of it all.
The northern flicker, unlike the starling, appears beautiful and slightly exotic, so they always get noticed, but in a good kind of way. In the suburbs, they feel like something that wandered in from the deep woods, large and red-headed with spots and stripes on a sleek gray body that reminds you of nothing else but a wild thing. In fact, they aren’t exotic at all. They appear fairly regularly in residential areas, particularly places that have lawns, where they often hunt for ants. But they are woodpeckers, which is probably another reason they show up in my neighborhood: all of the dying maples, rich with insects. Flickers, to my knowledge, do not hunt other birds. Even baby ones.
Birds, in general, are on the decline. One recent study estimates that North America has lost twenty-five percent of its bird population in the last fifty years. That’s three billion animals; there were three billion more birds living in the United States when my father was the age of my son. We are losing many things at this moment in time. Insects, too, which are the primary food source for many, many birds. So losing insects will inevitably mean losing more birds. You can call this a cascading effect, a wave in an emergent system.
The northern flicker has not escaped this trend, despite its relative willingness to live comfortably in the suburbs, among the mowed lawns and silver maples. Recent surveys show their population is also in decline. Flickers, however, face an additional threat: they must compete with starlings for nesting sites.
The European starling was deliberately introduced to North America by a man named Eugene Schieffelin. Born in New York City in 1827, a descendent of American Revolutionaries, Eugene Schieffelin was an amateur ornithologist who made rounds in the social set that so fascinated the great American novelist Henry James. But unlike James’s characters, society birds who fly away to England and France, Schieffelin brought English birds to America. Like James, he must have had literary aspirations; the story goes that Schieffelin wanted to import every bird species named in Shakespeare’s plays, including the starling and the house sparrow.
It would be easy enough to laugh at Schieffelin’s apparently clueless mix of romance and bad science, a 19th century version of a tech executive with too much money who vastly overestimates his own intellect. But his actions were informed by a larger, more deliberate purpose. Schieffelin was a member of the American Acclimatization Society, which believed that species from one part of the world should be deliberately introduced into others for their supposed benefits. The foreign would need to acclimate. Based on the Society’s name alone, it is hard to say if Schieffelin and his comrades wanted to acclimate for America or to America. Based on Schieffelin’s actions alone, it would appear to be the latter. Which is to simply point out that the starling is but a living murmuration in a long history of invaders and their fantasies.
Nestlings, of course, don’t know that they are an invasive species. They know warmth and hunger. They know the smell of their parents’ bodies, the scratch of the twigs and bits of plastic that make up the nest. They know the way the light changes when a parent, bearing food, magically appears in a hole in a silver maple, and they know how to make the insistent sounds that, if they can beat out their siblings, will satisfy their hunger.
After the flicker harrowed out the nest, a parent starling would roost, motionless, in a nearby branch, as if it could not remember why it was drawn to that spot. Perhaps it knew that something was missing, this insistent absence. Or maybe it simply had nowhere else to go.
The flicker spent the entire afternoon hollowing out another hole in the silver maple, only a foot or so above the spot where the starlings had made their home. We wondered why it didn’t simply take their nest; too small, probably. We also wondered why, if it was making another nest, the flicker relentlessly destroyed the starlings first. It looked like hoarding, a zero sum logic that refused to believe that one’s children could survive alongside those of another.
For hours, we could see the flicker’s head hammering at the maple, its body slowly swallowed up by the tree as it penetrated deeper and deeper, bit by bit. Tiny wood flakes, like the sawdust left by a chainsaw, littered the ground beneath the excavation site. The edges of the fresh hole shone white and clean.
As the flicker continued its work, hour after hour, another flicker appeared, hovering around the site, watching protectively. The two of them together, relentlessly carving the wood, expectation and dedication in their demeanor, confirmed our suspicions. The entire sordid affair wasn’t a struggle over food. It was shelter.
Starlings, it is worth noting, cannot excavate their own nests; they must adapt hollows made by other animals, like flickers and human beings. They are also a society dedicated to the practice of acclimatization.
Now, there is nothing. A week after those days of attack and defense, of invasion and infanticide, of rationalizations and fuzzy moral calculations, of a home destroyed and another made, the nesting sites appear to be empty. I’ve not seen the flicker or its mate. Perhaps, after everything, they’ve realized that the tree was not safe enough, not sufficiently tucked away from prying eyes. Perhaps the slam of our screen door as my son comes and goes on his daily adventures was too threatening. Or perhaps they found something better, easier. I don’t know. The starlings appear to have moved on, too; by now they are indistinguishable from the other birds that live in our neighborhood. I watch them through the window, the starlings and sparrows that Schieffelin plagiarized from Shakespeare, the blue jays and mourning doves, the robins and cardinals. They flit back and forth, stopping at the maple for a brief pause, a reprieve, a snatch of song. A moment of safety. And then they are gone.
Paul Jaussen, May 2020