I was always under the impression that the great suspense movie director Alfred Hitchcock was dead (and English – not that the two are mutually exclusive!). So, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered his house just west of Monroe, Michigan of all places. I was going west on South Custer Road when something prompted me to look north and gawk through the side window. I slammed on my brakes and headed back east on South Custer (briefly facing south while turning around). The something in question was a house and yard covered by thousands of blackbirds. It was a scene straight out of “The Birds.”
There was no sign that anyone was around, so I couldn’t verify who actually lived in the place. If it wasn’t the Hitchcock residence then it might have been the Hedren house (as in “Tippi”). For a moment I wondered if perhaps the poor occupants, whoever they may have been, were trapped inside after witnessing the horrible pecking death of their pet poodle. There was a small pile of something in the front yard that could have been tiny dog bones. Fortunately, this turned out to be nothing more than a piece of wind-blown trash. Since no recent bird-related deaths appeared in the paper the following day, I can now relate this story to you in comfort.
The sight of a million blackbirds is not an unusual one during the cold season. The birds -Starlings to be exact – are famous for gathering into large feeding and roosting flocks. The sight of so many black feathered bodies taking over a house was certainly worthy of a gawk. They were soaking up the mid-morning sun while roosting on the steeply angled shingle roof. The roof itself was a dark gray color but it was rapidly taking on a white-speckled appearance due to the accumulation of Starling “stuff.” Other birds were gleaning seeds from the open grass in the lawn. Still others were randomly flying about in thick black flocks as if patrolling the perimeter for signs of helpless little yard poodles. It was an occupation.
I admit that the whole thing fascinated me more than usual because I had just been thinking about Starlings. I introduced the subject at a garden club meeting on the previous morning. They wanted to hear about alien species and I obliged them. I started out the program by stating that William Shakespeare was partly to blame. In the early 1890’s a group of home-sick European immigrants decided to import and release (in America) all the birds mentioned in the Bard’s plays. A bunch of Starlings were part of that effort. They were liberated into New York’s Central Park based on the following snippet from King Henry the 4th (Part 1).
He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll holla ‘Mortimer!’
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
Yes, because King Henry would not ransom Mortimer, Hotspur vowed to teach a Starling how to say the word “Mortimer” – and only the word Mortimer – and give it to the king in the hopes of driving him mad. This is why there are Starlings in the New World. They went from a few hundred individuals to well over 200 million today. I’d say that at least half of these birds were in that yard west of Monroe the other day.
Upon hearing the Shakespeare story, one of the members of the garden club excitedly raised her hand and asked “you mean Starlings can talk?” I answered in the affirmative. “Yes, they can be taught simple words, but have trouble with Latin phrases and Japanese idioms.” My sarcasm fell flatly on the ground as she continued to talk about one of her favorite books called Arnie, the Darling Starling. In this book, a pet Starling was taught all kinds of words (although no Japanese as far as I know) and occasionally drove the household crazy with repetitious phrases such as “pretty bird.” “I always thought that was made up!” the gal said. She was so relieved and excited that I could do nothing but share in her joy.
Speed forward a day and you have my mega-Starling encounter and a flashback to that great Shakespearian/Hitchkockian drama about birds taking over the world. I returned to work last week and found a copy of Arnie the Darling Starling on my desk along with a very nice thank you letter from my garden club friend.
I can only imagine what would have been like if all of those Starlings gathered at the Hitchcock house had been screaming “Mortimer” and “Pretty bird.” That, my friend, would be the stuff of horror movies.