Four times in a two-week period, in print and on TV, I’ve been regaled with the story of Shakespeare’s starlings. As it’s told, in 1890 an amateur ornithologist, Eugene Schieffelin, sought to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to North America. He released sixty European starlings into New York’s Central Park—now they number in the hundreds of millions, an invasive and destructive species.
I used to think the early morning reveille outside my bedroom window was mockingbirds rolling out their repertoire of mimicked melodies. Now I’m not sure. Both mockingbirds and starlings are skilled at complex vocalizations, human and machine sounds as well as other birds. I doubt that I could tell the difference between the two by sight or sound, but now’s the time to try.
I live on a canyon and keep my binoculars and Birds of San Diego guide handy for sightings. We encourage birds onto our deck and patio with feeders, birdhouses, and saucers of fresh water. The streets in my neighborhood are named for birds, from Albatross to Lark, but these eponymous species elude our spot. We get finches, not the dazzling goldfinch, namesake of our main intersection, but the humble house finch, the male with an orange throat, his mate the ignominiously labeled LBB, little brown bird.
A few weeks ago a tiny gray-brown bird with a short beak and a white underside appeared. I googled “little gray-brown bird with white underside” and, through process of elimination, identified it as a female Bewick’s wren. She has a big voice for a little bird, a series of bell-like tweets and trills that I’m learning to pick out in a crowd.
I’ve spied a pair of masked visitors, observing COVID-19 precautions. Their solid black hoods make them easy to identify as dark-eyed juncos. But the speckled bird nosing around a planter, with gray chest and white brow, blunt tail and needle beak, is a mystery. It has a distinctive call that I’ve written down as tu tu tu, wheeeee. I’ve learned what it isn’t: pygmy nuthatch, dusky flycatcher, warbling vireo, spotted towhee, black phoebe, house sparrow, hermit thrush. But I still don’t know what it is.
I don’t have an ear for music—I’ve always confused the violin concerti of Tchaikovsky, Mendelsohn, and Bruch. If I listen to hours and hours of bird calls during these days of semi-isolation, might I then be able to recognize what I hear? Distinguish between mockingbirds and starlings?
In Act 1, Scene 3 of Henry IV, Shakespeare tells of a soldier who is ordered by the king never to mention his brother-in-law's name, whereupon the soldier dreams of a bird that would repeat that name over and over. “Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak; Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him.” Now there’s a good project for a period of sheltering at home.