Starling Feathers

On the tall maple tree on the south side of our house hangs several bird feeders. Every morning I stand at the window and watch the swarming.

My eyes search for the downy woodpeckers, the chickadees, and the flashy male cardinals. But just now none of them are there. Dozens of house sparrows, birds my dad used to derisively call “spotsies,” are fluttering everywhere. And hogging all the suet feeders were the starlings.

What a disappointment. Black blobs. Stubby tails. Screechy voices. I have a visceral dislike, perhaps even hatred, for starlings. Busy springtime nests of them in the cover of the propane tank regulator, and in my barn cupboard, annoy me no end.  And they are black. Just black.

I resent the senseless band of women who introduced them to America because they wanted to enjoy every bird mentioned by Shakespeare.

More than once in my life I have taken aim at starlings with air rifles, because they are good for nothing. Waste of space. Ugly. They come in gangs of thugs, scaring the other birds off. There goes the neighborhood.

Then I remembered a bird I thought to be beautiful. I snapped a picture, and looked it up. I first thought it looked different because it was immature. But then I learned starlings change colors without changing feathers. Dark and glossy in the summer, they turn white-spotted in the winter. And they are not all screech. Many times I hear meadow-larks, killdeer, and even robins, I’m being fooled. It is really just the virtuoso mimicry of starlings I am enjoying.

Immature adult starling with new fall, white-pointed feathers. Not so monochrome. Quite beautiful. Photo by John.

Then I remembered the funeral for my brother-in-law. After all the testimonials and the tears as we remembered this saint of a man married to his farm, I was turning home and witnessed the miracle of murmuration: synchronized swimming of thousands of starlings in the dusk. No one knows just why they mob dance just this way. Is it joy? Are they saying something? And, did they know at that moment that they were telling me God was laughing at the puny power of death?

Starling murmuration.

Now at the window, I try to go beyond looking. I try to behold. I bow my head to invite God to turn me around.

Like young David in John Updike’s story, “Pigeon Feathers,” I take a closer look, to work to notice the glory God lavishes on humble creatures, to breathe in the sacred, and breathe out the bacteria that infects my senses with ignorance, arrogance, and doubt.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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