Street Smart Chicago

Dime Stories: Nature Calls

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

The common starling or European starling was introduced to North America a couple of centuries ago by enthusiasts of Shakespeare. That’s right, Shakespeare. I had to read that twice myself. Evidently, the Bard was fond of the plucky bird’s gift for mimicry and a bunch of blue-bloods thought it would be jolly-good fun to have the little winged gangsters over here. The first thing the common starling did was muscle as many songbirds, including the lovely Eastern Bluebird, out of nesting spots as it could. It spread wildly, becoming one of the most successful species in the history of the continent. Particularly hard hit were the bluebirds, who were pushed damn near across the Mississippi River, damn near becoming  Western Bluebirds. Population-wise, they are just beginning to come back now in the last two decades. This is what happens when we decide to diddle-dick around with nature—we become the victims as well as the beneficiaries of unintended consequences.

The common starling is a striking bird that gives off a metallic, oily sheen of purples, reds, greens, bronzes and bright yellows when the sun shines on its plumage. They are hearty and boisterous and given to spectacular flight when in large flocks that often result in “murmuration,” which often makes the sky itself appear to be changing shape. It is something to see thousands upon thousands of starlings moving as one shape-shifting organism.

At my feeder every morning the starlings are usually here first. Though they prefer berries and insects, they, being  essentially scavengers, will suck down some seeds as well when the opportunity presents itself. They are improbably beautiful and tough little bastards. They will eat any kind of garbage the environment makes available—probably one of the reasons they’ve thrived in the Chicago area—I’d damn near bet that there are as many starlings as there are pigeons.

They are much like Irish brothers, in that they know the best way to win a fight is to bring a crowd. There is an old biker gang axiom that declares, “To kick ass, you have to bring ass.”

Watch the fuckers gang up on an owl or hawk if they decide to feed in the neighborhood. They don’t much dick around with falcons, seeing as they are fast enough to retaliate.

I never lose my affection for them, even when they are muscling other birds away from the feeder. One way to keep them from doing that is to throw a few pieces of bread out in the yard for them since they much prefer this to seeds and this way they can slug it out with the pigeons for the crusts.

I had somebody comment to me the other day that my column has been a lot about nature of late. I had to look at back columns to realize that it’s true. I guess it’s something that has been a lot on my mind in the last few years.

We routinely think of nature as something that happens hundreds of miles away. This is a mistake—the minute we forget that it happens right out the door; that we are, in fact, part of it? Our environment and every creature it sustains suffers. One trip to the Peggy Notebaert Museum in Lincoln Park will make you realize that Chicago is part of an immense and delicate eco-system that we’ve done our level best to destroy. That’s nature: tougher than a nail and as ephemerally delicate as an orb-weaver’s web; and it is changing faster and with more consequences than we can imagine.

I guess I’ve paid more attention to natural history because our next great issues of  survival won’t be with the Chinese or the Russians or the various enemies (and friends) in the Middle East. They will be with the planet itself and whether it will be habitable. If this sounds alarmist, it really isn’t. Declining populations of songbirds, bees and natural grasses are quite literally the canaries in the coal mine.

In the last month, an ice shelf about six times the size of Manhattan slid off of Antarctica. Where do you suppose that ice cube is going to float to? If it floats up toward the equator, the temperature of the world’s oceans rises precipitously. Anything and anywhere below sea level will have a very hard time not sharing itself with the water. There is a very good case to be made that Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina were a result of climate change. The man-made calamity that surrounded both tragedies notwithstanding is a whole other set of issues which have everything to do with nature as well.

 I don’t want to bum you out, but know that even in cities—in fact, especially in cities, we must be mindful of the grievous damage we do to nature on a daily basis and commit ourselves to DO LESS. That’s right, be less of an asshole to the earth: throw your shit out, recycle, feed the birds, let the coyotes eat the rats, walk or take the bus, ride your bike. and for Christ sake, grow something—tomatoes, flowers, even weeds! Take your kids to the Notebaert Museum and teach them a reverence for living things. Have them pull the fucking ear-buds out and show them something green and let them know they have a stake in it.

 Any time mankind has picked a fight with nature, nature won.

This is now what is on my mind when I look out the window at a starling. This and how in nature there is no right and no wrong, there are merely consequences.

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