Ferrus T. Buckett's starling solution

March 06, 1996|By Helen Chappell

OYSTERBACK, Md. -- Starting around Groundhog Day, Ferrus T. Buckett begins to build his eel pots. Ferrus, as we all know, is the world's oldest waterman, somewhere between 70 and death. But he still likes to put his pots overboard in March, when those eels begin to return to Chesapeake Bay from the Sargasso Sea.

Ferrus sets up his wire mesh and his clamps by the kerosene furnace in the kitchen where it's warm, and works away through the cold weather. For entertainment, he keeps a couple of bird feeders and a suet bag where he can see them out the window.

Ferrus is very attached to the titmice and the juncoes and the chickadees that come to his porch. He attracts all kinds of birds to his feeders, Ferrus does. He's got a mockingbird and a couple of flickers that come around regularly and climb all over the suet bag he's hung from the cedar tree. He's partial to the redwings that hop all over the porch rails, too. The little sparrows are so tame that they cluster around the feeder when they see him coming with an old coffee can full of seed, and it amuses him no end to look out the windows at the squabbling jays and the bright cardinals.

He'll work and watch the nuthatches climbing down the trees head-first; their antics make him laugh, the way they flutter back and forth and chitter at each other. At dawn, when he's making coffee, he watches the doves pick around the grass for cracked corn. Ferrus is a man who loves his birds. Why, he ran his workboat through a rig of seaduck decoys last winter, because he loathes people who kill birds they can't even eat, just for fun.

No St. Francis

But Francis of Assisi, Ferrus is not, as we found out when he had an invasion of English starlings a couple of weeks ago.

Starlings, as some of you might know, are the bully boys of the bird world. Big, ugly-tempered, speckled creatures, they have the charm and personality of the current Congress. Not only do they drive all the other birds away, they fight with each other, poop all over and generally hog up every food item in sight. They can clean out a good-sized feeder in about 15 minutes flat, then hang around the door eyeing you as if you were a big sunflower-seed-studded suet ball, daring you to come outside and fight, you pacifist poulet you. (As some will recall, Ferrus speaks perfect, Parisian French.)

Ferrus' general philosophy is chacun a son gout, and he realizes if you feed one bird, you feed them all, but starlings are something else entirely. He'd like to feed those starlings his dog Blackie's yellow snow. After this mob had hung around for several days, jabbering, dropping their doo everywhere, fighting and freeloading, driving all the other birds away, Ferrus finally decided he'd had enough; the starlings had to go. Ferrus thought as he worked on his pots and as he worked he found the perfect solution.

That afternoon, Ferrus went out on the marsh where the Boone Bros. keep their still and borrowed a compound bucket of sour mash off Gabe and Mike. He may have bought a jar of their 500 proof for himself while he was there, but we can't say that for sure.

We do know that he came back and spread that mash all around his porch, where even the dullest of the dull-witted starlings wouldn't miss it. Then he picked up his wire and his clamps and went back to building eel pots, humming contentedly, as he does when he's up to something.

Those greedy starlings couldn't get enough of that mash. By lunchtime, they were staggering around and slurring their chirps. Drunk? Who them? Why they could pry flerfectly well, hank thoo! But just annuder one for the road, ya know? Ferrus listened to them befuddledly slamming into the screen door as they tried to take off and chuckled when a red tail hawk dive-bombed the porch and they all just rolled across the yard, too stoned to flee.

When he looked out again around suppertime, there were about 100 of them passed out all over the concrete like so many speckled lumps from a moldy featherbed. Grabbing a bushel basket, he walked outside and loaded up the stuporous icterids. He called Blackie and loaded the snoring starling basket into the back of his pickup.

Ferrus caught up with Paisley Redmond just as he was about to set out from the seafood plant with a truckload of Cap'n Fike's Flash Frozen Breaded Clam Strips bound for Cambridge. Ferrus slipped his load of inebriated starlings into the back of Paisley's truck and gave him precise directions to Phil Gramm's gunning estate down near Blackwater. Senator Gramm, who proclaimed his Eastern Shore neighbors stupid, deserved, Ferrus thought, a flock of European starlings.

By the time those birds woke up, they'd have fierce hangovers and worse attitudes than even Phil himself. And they'd be too disoriented to ever find their way back to Ferrus' house again.

It was, to his mind, the perfect starling solution.

''You know, honey,'' Ferrus told Blackie as they headed home again, and he was feeling philosophical, ''some fool wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to the new world. So he let a pack of European starlings loose in Central Park, in New York. He's dead now, but they've just kept on goin', gettin' out of hand.''

Blackie snuffled and cocked his head.

''But,'' Ferrus continued thoughtfully, ''I'd like to bring that man back to life. Just so I could kill him all over again. And you know how?''

Blackie yawned.

''I'd have him pecked to death by starlings,'' Ferrus chuckled, as he wheeled into Omar Hinton's parking lot to pick up a 30-pound bag of birdseed.

Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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