Saturday, 16 November 2013

Savin Stalin

To Kill or Not to Kill: that was the question when a pair of Common Starlings (or European Starlings) made it clear they were moving into the eave of our house. The dusty pellet gun stirred from its long slumber in a dark, forgotten cupboard.

Up until this winter, Common Starlings were only infrequently sighted on Blue Hill Nature Reserve, preferring the warmer and more human disturbed landscapes of the Langkloof Valley to the south of us and the Kouga Mountains. I guess it was only a matter of time before the eaves of all the buildings of Avontuur were occupied and new breeding grounds would have to be found for broody individuals of this species, which has been expanding its range slowly but surely across South Africa ever since it was introduced from the European continent in 1897, anecdotally by Cecil John Rhodes. In the last ten years it has colonised much of Kwazulu-Natal, the Free State and Gauteng (see the red in the range change map below).

Common Starlings, along with Indian Mynahs, are among South Africa's least loved birds. Their latin name - Sturnus vulgaris - would suggest they have never really had many fans. Roughly concurrent with the arrival of the broody pair was an email to our local bird club seeking advice on how the hunting community could be enlisted to help eradicate or control 'invasive' bird species, such as these and other species like the House Crow. These species are seen as a threat to our own endemic bird life as they may compete for food and nesting sites. But are they?  Or are they not just filling the ecological niche created as man has converted much original habitat into one of artificial cliffs, with soft-lawned gardens with exotic food sources?

I have a soft spot for Common Starlings. While writing up my PhD from our third story apartment in Old Trafford (home to famous football team Manchester United), they would often visit our window ledge where we had placed a variety of seeds and feed balls to entice the birds away from the nearby park for our viewing pleasure. Back then (around 2009) there was much concern that this species appeared to be in decline across Great Britain. I often used to wonder if counts of this species used to include the entrance to our local ASDA superstore, which had a large population of starlings. These scrounged a living on the crumbs of crisps and white-bread sandwiches of the less-elite of the local human population.

I decided to let the pellet gun slumber. I was interested to see how much this new species would infringe upon the activities of our local bird community – many of which are ringed and well known to me personally. These include a small family of 'naturalized' House Sparrows, a species not considered with malice by the birding fraternity, although it to has origins on foreign shores.

After much activity nest-building in a corner of the eave not used by any other resident bird family, it was clear the chicks had hatched late in October when fragments of turquoise egg shell were discovered below the nesting site. Not much time later and the arrival of the adults carrying grasshoppers and other insects would be heralded by the irruption of soft chirping.

On the first weekend of November we were having a much relished lie in from our normal early starts to the day thanks to some cool, wet weather brought in by a late low pressure system. Elena, my daughter, and I had been watching the adult starlings forage on the lawn outside Elena's bedroom window. They made frequent trips to the nest with beaks full of a variety of insects. It was only after breakfast when we emerged outside that we saw the limp body of a starling chick lying on the cold, wet concrete 5 meters below the nest site. It appeared one unlucky starling had not made it through the night.

I picked up the cold, lifeless corpse for an unceremonious dumping on the compost heap, when zombie-like it opened its beak and stretched a leg. Was it still alive?! I had just finished brewing my morning cup of coffee and wrapped the chick starling in a cloth and placed it on the still-warm coffee machine. Within a few minutes a twitching beak and feeble movements suggested clear signs of life. I tried feeding it some left over Weetbix, but was worried I was going to drown it in milk.

After the weather had cleared up I placed the starling under the nest to see if the parents would find it. However, after several hours it was clear the weak, soft calls of the poor thing were being ignored. At the time we had Ben Smit as a visitor, an ornithologist with experience at hand-rearing wild birds. In the afternoon he pointed out the bird was hypothermic and fed it a meal worm. Our resident researcher, Robyn, was placed in charge of its care. She didn't care for the name I'd given the bird – Stalin, and called him Stan instead. Pronutro and mealworms were vanished down his throat at an astonishing rate.

So began a week where Stan Stalin endeared himself to us. He grew bigger and stronger and his feathers started to grow. Elena was intrigued by the new addition to the family, and after a week Stalin was hoping around and begging for food whenever he saw someone move. We thought he'd made it, until only just over a week since his miraculous recovery, his box fell silent and for no reason we could determine: Stalin had passed on to birdy heaven during the night. In all likelihood, the injuries sustained after his ejection from his nest had caught up with him.

Stalin was buried under a pepper tree, with a sprinkling of Pronutro for the after life. It was a day that left us sad – at the individual level its hard to hold something responsible for the actions of its species. Our families and friends of course being the best example of that ethical quandry. So RIP Stalin – we'd such hopes for you.

Common Starling arrives - the size of thrush these are stout and hardy birds

Under the right light, the plummage of the Common Starling is quite fetching

Starlings are agile fliers, zooming straight under the roof with no need to perch
Stalin - as we found him
Adopted mother Robyn tries to figure Stalin out

Elena was fascinated with feeding times
One wriggler down the hatch

The worm's eye view
Alien Invasion: the range of Common Starling, showing new occupations for the last 10 years or so in Red

1 comment:

  1. The room feels so quiet and empty without you, Stan. Hope birdy heaven is treating you well... Miss you!


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