Langue Verte

^ Starlings used to nest in the eves of our old apartment.

The birds (along with a few squirrels and the near-feral neighbour cats) are keeping our backyard view alive. The vast majority of those birds have been Starlings.

The European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is widely derided as a pest bird — like weeds on the wing. They were introduced to the United States in 1890 by Eugene Schieffelin (a member of the American Acclimatization Society) as part of the poetic/naive gesture of bringing “the birds of Shakespeare” to Central Park. Starlings now number in the teeming millions from the hundred or so originally released.

Starlings have always been a fascination for me. The oil-slick iridescence of their feathers makes them a marvel to see up close but it is mostly their vast repertoire of appropriated bird songs that makes them so compelling.

You can often catch male Starlings perched high on rooftops or poles cycling through all the bird calls and environmental sounds they have committed to memory. If the “language of birds” is, as was once thought, the true original language, then Starlings are one of its great archivists.

Thinking about the adept mimicry of Starlings, I began to wonder about bird song in general. A bit of surface level reading (cough, Wikipedia) introduced me to the concept of song crystallization. Young birds are taught calls by mature tutors. They practice and elaborate on the calls as their social interaction increases going through a phase of plastic song until their song matures and becomes less varient. Amazingly, birds deprived of tutors and social interaction still sing but only in a limited simplified manner called isolate song — I feel sad just thinking about that. There I go, thinking about birds in human terms.

The fascination with bird song throughout the ages isn’t surprising. To us, its scope and complexity makes it easy to compare to the diversity of human language. The vast variety of bird calls from rasping to melodic communicate everything from alarm to sexual availability. People love to find something of themselves in the other animals around them and mysteries like the seemingly coded language of birds can take on mystical importance to some. The title of this post, Langue verte, refers to the belief that the language of birds was a “green language” — a pure form of language — even the language of angels.

I love watching the determined march of Starlings across grass — all bobbing their beaks into the ground repeatedly like those plastic drinking dippy birds.

As a large group of Starlings forage in our neighbour’s yard today, my attachment to them feels much more on their own level. I’ll certainly admit to my fair share of anthropomorphism when it comes to birds and other non-humans. But with Starlings I also feel excited simply to wonder at the complexity of their communication beyond any connection to human language or thought.

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Update: Below I’ve added a video of some starlings in our current yard. We have quite large groups of them here to the point that they form micro-murmurations as they move in dark swathes between trees. This group is making some interesting water dripping sounds.