Our National Bird

September 13, 1994|By EIRIK A. T. BLOM

Bel Air -- No less of an American icon than kindly old Ben Franklin argued against adopting the bald eagle as a national symbol. Ben was known to be a little quirky, but his reasoning was sound. The bald eagle is a scavenger, fiercer looking than acting, and a bit of a fraud. It is neither bald nor a true eagle. Ben argued for the wild turkey, feathered rather than bottled, a species that is steadfast, resolute and, not to be overlooked, delicious. Sorry Ben, but that turkey won't fly.

There is a bird, however, that is the perfect symbol for America, whose every attribute coincides with our greatest strengths and whose history is eerily parallel to our own. Congress should move immediately to replace the bald eagle with the European starling.

Cut the howls of protest from environmentalists, bird watchers, the Post Office and the public. This is no joke. All the arguments are on the side of the starling.

* The European starling, as the name suggests, is an interloper, not a native species. The perhaps one billion starlings that inhabit the U.S. rose from just 12 pairs released into Central Park in the late 1890s by a gentleman with a disturbed dream. He wanted to bring to America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. None of the others took, but the starling has come to dominate the ornithological landscape of North America. Its history mirrors our own perfectly. It is an immigrant that came to the New World, saw opportunity and did not merely persevere, but flourished.

* Manifest destiny: The starling conquered the continent in less than 75 years, the only species that can compete with humans for the speed with which it took and held new territory.

* Move it or lose it. When the starling arrived on these shores it found a large indigenous population of natives already in place. The natives were no match for the aggressiveness and determination of starlings. When natives, like the red-headed woodpecker, did not concede nest sites quickly they were forcibly ejected. Natives that resisted were attacked and sometimes killed. Those natives that chose to fight rather than capitulate were reduced to a remnant of their former populations, isolated in small enclaves. Anybody miss the similarity?

* Starlings are pests. True, but from Somalia to Singapore, from Rome to Rio, pestiness is widely acknowledged to be the basic American field mark. We take pride in it.

* Starlings are boisterous, obstreperous party-crashers that travel in packs and thrive in the social crucible of urban environments. True, true and true. How utterly American.

* Starlings are adaptable. They are survivors, hardy and flexible, undaunted by challenge or setback. They take whatever we or Mother Nature throw at them and turn it to their advantage. They have prospered where others have failed.

* Starlings eat almost anything. They love MacDonald's french fries, pizza, hot dogs, cereal grains, and almost anything else that falls to hand. Feeding a starling mostly means getting out of its way. In a country where most people think cuisine is French for ''all-you-can-eat,'' this is a bird we can party with.

* None of this idealistic mating-for-life pap for starlings. They change mates nearly as often as Americans do, and like us, there is a lot of opportunistic gene-sharing in large colonies. Their mating rituals are lusty, noisy, public and flexible. What's not to love?

* There is no chance the starling will ever be endangered. Isn't it a little embarrassing to have as our national symbol a bird that swoons away at the first sign of a little environmental degradation? Where's the hardiness, the American can-do spirit? While eagles were sulking in remote areas and whining about DDT, stream channelization, forest fragmentation and overfishing, starlings were conquering the continent. I ask you, which is more American?

* Everybody can have one. No sane person wants a bald eagle on their property. The minute one shows up you have nature lovers and government officials in brown clothes and Birkenstocks swarming over you like ants at a Georgia picnic. If the starling was the national bird, virtually every house and factory in America would have a nesting pair. Think how businesses could point with pride to providing homes for the country's symbol. And when a starling builds a nest in an inappropriate spot like a drainpipe or the gearbox of a sensitive piece of machinery, you just yank it out. No one complains and the starlings just build another one someplace else. What a convenient national bird!

Let's face it, the bald eagle was a mistake, chosen under the false assumption that it was warlike, proud, resolute and dangerous. In truth, it is a wimp, folding at the first sight of humans, a lazy bird that would rather scavenge than hunt, a depressing loner ill-suited for the American way of life. The starling, on the other hand, is the history and culture of America, the embodiment of our dreams, our attitudes and our future. It's time to give the eagle the bird and the starling its due.

Eirik Blom is a biological consultant and semi-pro bird watcher.

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