“Listen, you two,” said the farmer. “I don’t want you to touch my starlings!”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, February 17, 1934.

“Twenty thousand starlings,” said Jimmie Frise, “were bumped off last week by the farmers down along Lake Erie.”

“Little,” I said, “did those first sixty starlings that were released in Central Park, New York, thirty years ago, dream of the fate their children’s children would meet.1

“It was a ghastly mistake,” said Jim, “importing those European starlings to America. Why, you have no idea how they have multiplied. The sky down in Essex and Kent is black with them, Millions of them. They have spread all over America. They have established themselves permanently in the warm southern states, and yet they are reported up at Fort Churchill, on the edge of the Arctic.”

“What is the good of shooting 20,000 of them?” I asked.

“Well, when men decide a thing is bad, they like to do something about it,” explained Jimmie. “It makes them feel better to have killed 20,000.”

“But in the meantime, what are we going to do about it?” I asked.

“Nobody knows,” admitted Jim. “Whole cities, like Washington, are being conquered by the starlings. Park trees fifty years old are being sacrificed to try and drive the starlings away. Stately towers and belfries are being grotesquely boarded up in the hope that this inhospitable hint will be taken by the starlings and they will get out. But they don’t. It begins to look as if the starlings will alter the architecture of America.”

“It makes me feel very helpless,” I admitted.

“If I weren’t a hard-headed and clear-thinking twentieth century man,” said Jim, “I would almost imagine that this plague of starlings was nature’s revenge on us for destroying the passenger pigeon. It was just about the time the last passenger pigeon was slaughtered that the starlings were set loose in Central Park. Ironic, isn’t it?”

“Jimmie,” I declared. “I am a mystic. I believe in things like that. While we go blindly along imagining we can conquer the world by good business practices, while we march stupidly from one human disaster to another, each year getting more thoughtful, each year becoming more sure of our great human powers, nature keeps laughingly tossing us hints like these starlings. We strain our brains over economics. And nature plays her jokes.”

“Nature has no mind,” said Jim.

“No,” I countered. “But nature has a heart. In all our splendor and glory, we men conquer the earth and incidentally exterminate the passenger pigeon. Having conquered the earth, here comes the starling, just to see how much we have conquered.”

“Don’t forget,” said Jim, “that for all the sob stories you hear about the passenger pigeon, it, too, was an enemy of man. Why, a flock of pigeons, big enough to cloud the sun, would drop down in a pioneer’s little clearing, into a field of peas. And in a few minutes, before the pioneer could wake up to the disaster, there wasn’t a pea left.”

“Well,” I said, “we got rid of the pigeon. We’ve got the peas. What good are they? We can’t sell them.”

“H’m,” admitted Jim.

“And now the starling has come,” I said, “in ever-thriving millions, to destroy us!”

“Then,” cried Jimmie, “what are we going to do? Submit to our destruction? A fine patriot you are. Why, to arms, to arms, and join the patriots of the Lake Erie shore!”

“It is a war,” I agreed.

“You bet it is a war,” cried Jimmie. “It will make commonplace human wars like the last one, or the next one, seem like sport. Why, the starlings could starve us in one year. They could become so numerous, they would eat all our grain, our grass, starve our cattle. All the ships on the sea couldn’t bring enough food, fast enough, to keep us from starving. The starlings would consume the food of our live stock and poultry. Exterminate our grain. Gobble up our vegetables and fruits. And what an awful spectacle it would be. All of a sudden, us lovely civilized people murdering one another for a scrap of food. Bank presidents eating their old shoes. Movie actresses gnawing old bones. It’s a terrible thought. We ought to get busy and arm against the foe.”

“And all the while,” I gasped, “the sky about us black with the rustling wings of millions of birds, like demons sent to humble and destroy us. What a revenge!”

“What a revenge nature can take on us, any time,” said Jim, “for our sins against her!”

“Jim,” I said, “do you think we could rouse the people to their danger? If we could get everybody in the world to take a gun and shoot starlings…”

“If we could send our militia, armed with shotguns, out into the forests and the deserts,” added Jimmie.

“And Arctic expeditions all across the vast spaces of the north,” I said, “to pursue the deadly starling to its last lair!”

“Yet,” said Jim sadly, “if we missed only two of them, if we overlooked just one pair, then in thirty years we would have the same old menace again!”

“That’s the trouble with nature,” I said. “It is so healthy.”

“We ought,” put in Jim, “to do something about it, however. It is our function as investigators of public matters, to go and shoot a few of them.”

“I am certainly with you,” I agreed.

Defending the Human Race

So instead of going rabbit shooting, the rabbit being another, menace that Jim and I have been keeping down for years past, we spent last week-end, armed with scatter-guns and small shot, out in the defence of the human race from extermination through starvation.

We drove west, the starling menace being greater the farther west you go. We drove out the Dundas highway and then went north, zig-zagging west and north, all the while scanning the sky for the black legions of the foe.

“If we see any on the ground, or sitting on a fence.” I asked, “should we shoot them? Or only take them on the wing?”

“Only on the wing,” cried Jim, emphatically. “Remember, we are sportsmen, even though we are on the verge of extermination!”

We passed Milton, and its cleft mountains. We got up into a very pretty country of farms and swamps. Two or three times. we stopped the car violently to leap out and take aim. But the little birds we had spotted in the evergreens were only goldfinches and siskins and other tiny songbirds.

We saw one crow below Guelph, but it was too smart. The moment we started to slow the car, it bounced into the air and went away with one sarcastic croak.

Turning south, we passed wide of the cities of Kitchener so as to get southward toward that infested sea of Erie. We saw several small drab birds flitting over the snow from the fences and weedy ditches where they had been creeping, like beggars sniping butts along the roadsides of the city.

“When we come on them,” said Jimmie, while the long snowy miles ticked by us, “by all accounts there will be immense flocks of them. You will have to be ready, and load and reload like lightning, firing into the mass of them as they fly over.”

“I’m ready,” I said, setting the shotgun shells in between the fingers of my left hand, where they were held as in a holder for instant action.

“Hssst!” warned Jim. “A bird!”

He slowed the car. Ahead, on a rail fence, sat a dark bird, nearly as big as a robin. It had a long pale beak and a short tail.

“A starling,” I hissed.

“We’ll slow down,” whispered Jimmie, “and both get out together. Then when it flies, we will both shoot, both barrels. A broadside!”

We slowed. The bird was a good forty yards away, sitting serenely on the fence, all unaware of our approach, it seemed, and unafraid.

We got out.

“Quietly,” whispered Jim, “let’s walk closer. We mustn’t miss! When I raise my gun, it will be the signal to fire.”

Down the rutted country sideroad, with nary a farm or a house or a barn to be seen. but only the heaving hills and the little copses in the fence corners, and the gray winter sky overhead, we crept pace by pace, toward this mortal enemy of human kind.

Our hearts were beating high. This was the mystical moment. The first shot. It would ring around the earth. This was another Sarajevo2. What prince of the enemy was this, sitting on the rail fence!

We paced, cautiously, nearer and nearer, the guns poised. Double barrel guns. Loaded with number seven shot. To scatter and wipe out the black demon.

Then we heard a soft sound.

The stupid enemy was singing!

Squatted there, on the fence rail, its head lifted a little like the head of a mother crooning to her baby in a rocking chair, half asleep in the gray winter light, the starling was softly and aimlessly warbling.

We stopped. We lowered our muzzles.

Squeak, warble, hiss, flute, flute, flute, went the starling. Jim took another step forward and I followed. Pace by pace, we advanced. We were within twenty yards, eighteen, sixteen.

Squeak, flute, flute, warble, hiss, tinkle, squeak, softly sang the starling.

Fourteen, twelve yards.

And now we could see that the starling was not a black bird. He was in masquerade costume. A harlequin, decked out in a suit of golden chain mail, overlaid on soft brown-black velvet!

An unreal, a strange, a beautiful creature, with a pale large bill tremulous as he sang in a guttural low voice a sort of Wagnerian song. The only song in all the white, gray, bitter world!

The song of an exile. A sad, small song.

In the winter stillness, we stood listening, with reverently lowered gun muzzles, until the starling got tired of his song and fluttered his feathers out and stood up, as a dreamer wakes. He turned his head and saw us. And without haste, he took wing and flew away across the frozen fields.

“Well, well,” said Jim.

“I hadn’t the heart,” I admitted. “It seemed so lone.”

“The only way you can work up any passion about starlings,” said Jim, “is when you get them in masses, in hundreds, thousands.”

“Yet each one of them is a little harlequin in gold and black, like that one,” I pointed out.

“In war,” said Jim, “you can’t stop to consider your enemy as individuals. You musn’t picture them as nice young men.”

We got in the car and drove down at couple of lots. In an orchard, as we drew near, we saw twenty birds in the apple trees.

“Hsst!” I hissed. “An outpost! Twenty of the enemy in those apple trees.”

Two Opinions About Everything

He stopped the car. We got out with guns alert and crept down the road. We deployed. Jim took the right and I the left.

“Bang,” went Jim’s gun into the orchard.

“Bang, bang,” went my gun, scoring two misses.

“Hoy!” roared a voice.

The trouble with farmers in winter is they look so much like a plowed field.

This farmer was carrying an armful of wood across the field just back of the orchard. He dropped the wood and came, on bent legs, bounding through the orchard.

“What the Sam Hill!” he shouted, feeling his face with a large hand.

It was useless to run. He would have got our license number anyway.

He halted inside the orchard fence and glared at us.

“We were shooting starlings, sir,” I said.

“You were shooting me, you mean!” yelled the farmer, though he was only twelve feet away.

“Pardon, sir,” said Jim. “We are two public-spirited citizens out helping the great crusade against the starling. You ought to thank us for coming to help you keep down the menace that threatens not only your crops, your stock but your own very life!”

The farmer studied us for a minute.

“City fellows, I suppose,” he said, quietly. “Full of linseed and beans as usual. Listen, you two. I don’t want you to touch my starlings!”

“Why, they are destroyers of –” began Jim.

“I been watching them all fall and winter,” said the farmer. “They have been eating cocoons and grubs out of the bark of my apple trees. They have been eating pounds and pounds of weed seeds. What else would they be staying around here for all winter? There’s no other food but weeds, bugs and waste.”

“They ruin cherries,” said Jim.

“I have no cherries,” retorted the farmer.

“They will destroy a field of peas.”

“I have no peas,” said the farmer.

“The farmers of Essex and Kent slaughtered 20,000 of them,” said Jim.

“All right, this isn’t Essex and Kent,” said the farmer. “Look, I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take your names and addresses. And if ever the starlings get so bad they are digging up my potatoes, or attacking my heifers, I’ll send for you to save me.”

“Good-day, sir,” we said, retreating back up the road to our car.

“You see,” said Jim. “There are two opinions about everything, even about extermination.”

We turned the car and went back the road we had come. And it so happened that when we came to the place where we had tried to shoot the starling on the rail fence, there it was again, huddled down in the fading afternoon.

So we got out of the car and crept up close and listened to it sing until it got up and flew away to its bed, probably some maple tree it calls its old Canadian home.

Editor’s Notes:

  1. All the European Starlings in North America descended from 100 birds set loose in New York’s Central Park in the early 1890s. The birds were intentionally released by a group who wanted America to have all the birds that Shakespeare ever mentioned. ↩︎
  2. Reference to the start of World War 1 and the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. ↩︎