Welcome

My first name is Erika. Not Erica. Not Ericka. My last name is Hammerschmidt, which has thirteen letters, including five consonants in a row. People still find it easier to spell than my first name.

In college I majored in German and Spanish. I also accidentally minored in art, just by taking so many art classes for the fun of it. I grow my own vegetables. I cut my own hair, but even when a professional barber cuts it, it still sticks out on one side and in on the other. I’m an author, artist and speaker living in Minnesota. I work at Target as well as giving speeches on autism and writing books. I am married to a space alien named John Ricker, who, like me, is on the autism spectrum.

Below you will find my latest news. Blog posts happen at least once a week here, on Sunday morning. Add me to your bookmarks! I’m always up to something.

Sirius the Starling takes the Ice Bucket Challenge

The ice bucket challenge is really working for raising awareness. It may be silly and gimmicky, but it’s getting people to donate.

So Sirius stepped up and tried it.

He’ll take a bath in ANYTHING. Well, almost anything. Maybe he had to wait until the ice melted; so what. He’s adorable.

ALS Ice Water Challenge

I first learned what ALS was, when I was a kid in the car with my parents, driving past this old landmark:

http://www.slphistory.org/history/als.asp

als1969

I asked what the letters in the sign stood for. My parents explained both meanings (though I’m sure the builders of the sign didn’t have Lou Gehrig’s Disease in mind).

I kinda wish this place was still in business, so I could go there, order a glass of ice water, and pour it on my head.

Oh well. Might have to make do with Al’s Breakfast on University Avenue.

A Bridge in Time

I’ve been thinking about how strange it is that our sense of time can tell us, simultaneously, contradictorily, that the same period of time has felt both longer and shorter than it actually was.

Recently I saw a mention of the I-35W bridge collapse on TV. I was barely paying attention, and at first thought it was talking about a new bridge collapse. Once I figured out that it was actually referring to the anniversary of the old one, I started wondering how many years it had been.

Looking it up was a shock. My memory had stored that event as if it were very recent: I would not have been surprised to find out that it happened last year. But 2007? Seven years ago? For a few minutes I was convinced that Wikipedia had a typo.

I spent a while wondering how the last seven years could have flown by so fast. Was my perception of time speeding up that much as I grew older? Was the rest of my life going to slip through my fingers as if it were just a couple years?

Then I started thinking of other things that happened around the same time.

My book, for one. My memoir “Born on the Wrong Planet,” first published in 2003 by Tyborne Hill, was republished by AAPC in the year 2008… the year after the bridge collapse.

That republishing, though more recent, feels much longer ago. Six years feels about right to me, if not a bit short. The switch from my old publisher to my new one feels like a long-ago stage in my growth as a person; a scene from an earlier era of my life.

Why does the bridge collapse feel more recent to me than AAPC’s publication of my book? Was it because it’s a more important event? Yes, we do tend to say things like “it seems like just yesterday” when talking about memories that are important to us. And yes, objectively I realize that the bridge collapse was a more important event, affecting more lives more severely, than any event in my own life.

But in terms of my own emotional reaction to it, my brain does not seem to perceive it as more important than my book publication. It’s hard to react emotionally to a disaster that kills hundreds, when you see such disasters on the news every day. Exposure to the constant violence and destruction of real life will desensitize you faster than any gory video game or horror movie. The emotions close off as a defense mechanism.

I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed or injured in the bridge collapse, so my mind filed it as just another in a long line of deadly catastrophes on the news that my emotions couldn’t keep up with. So why, I wondered, was it so fresh in my mind, while the republication of my book– a deeply emotional process for me– seemed so long ago?

I think my mind measures time by change, not by actual passage of time. After all, change is the only way we really can measure time: the change of the seasons, the motion of the sun and moon and stars, the progress of the machinery in a clock. By observing how much things have changed, whether it’s the position of the clock’s hands or the color of the leaves, we get an idea how much time existed between now and the last time we checked.

The switch to the new publisher was an event in my own life, so I measure the time since it by how much I have changed. The bridge collapse was an event in the history of Minneapolis, so I measure the time since it by how much Minneapolis has changed.

Minneapolis is certainly a bit different now from how it was in 2007, but it’s stayed more the same, overall, than I have. Or maybe I notice the changes in myself more than the changes in my city.

I don’t know. I just know that my sense of time doesn’t provide a general feeling of time flying or time crawling for “the last seven years,” or “this past week,” or “today.” Instead of consistently judging that a certain period of time went by “fast” or “slowly,” it measures my perceived speed of time differently depending on which event I’m counting from.

It’s not really perceiving the speed of time; it’s simply tagging various memories as “recent” or “long ago,” with seemingly little regard for how long ago they actually were.

If it chooses these tags based on how much change has occurred in the relevant area since the event, that’s why the same period of time can feel like an eternity or an eye-blink depending on which memory I’m recalling.

The more a thing changes, the more time passes for that thing. A new form of temporal relativity, perhaps.

What Data meant by “emotionless”: The mind and body of feelings

When John and I sat down and watched all of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the thing that most consistently strained my suspension of disbelief wasn’t the faster-than-light travel, the plethora of humanoid aliens, or the idea of Wesley being allowed on the bridge.

It was Data the android. Not because he was an intelligent machine, but because he claimed to have no emotion.

He functioned, in all the most important respects, exactly like any creature with emotion. He made efforts to preserve his own life. He showed loyalty toward some people and distrust of others, and seemed to prefer the company of certain people. He was constantly motivated to seek new and interesting experiences. And on top of it all, he said, outright, countless times, that he had a desire to feel emotion.

At the time, I couldn’t find any way to spackle this gaping plothole. Desire is typically considered an emotion– one of the strongest and most important.

In fact, if you’re a conscious being, capable of making your own choices, you have to have the emotion of desire. That’s because all choices are caused by desire. I’ve analyzed hundreds of the choices I’ve made, and every single one was made because I either wanted it, or wanted something I could get by doing it.

I don’t often make absolute statements, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to make a choice for any reason other than desire.  Even if you do something because someone has a gun to your head, you’re still choosing to do it because it’s a means to the end of staying alive, which is something you presumably want. Even if you did something totally pointless that gained you nothing, just to prove you could, it would still be because you wanted to prove it.

So, I thought, if a creature that behaved like Data truly had no emotion, then he would not be a conscious entity. He’d be an automaton, programmed with an assortment of stock responses to an assortment of types of situations that his creator imagined he might face. Complicated, yes– it would take an enormous number of pre-programmed responses and simple algorithms working together, to simulate sapience as well as he does. But not truly conscious. The choices he made would actually be the choices of the person who programmed him. The prosecutor in “The Measure of a Man” would have been right about Data: he would not be a sentient being.

Even when depressed people enter a phase of “emotionlessness,” they still have the basic emotion of desire, on a few of the most fundamental issues. When they are unable to feel most of the emotions in their day-to-day lives, they can get bored and exhausted with this life of doing things they don’t care about. Sometimes the desire to stop the pointless routine becomes so strong they commit suicide. Sometimes they press onward and keep going through the motions anyway, because they want to avoid making other people sad– which is also a desire.

If you were capable of conscious thought, and not controlled by anything, but you were incapable of feeling desire… then you would do nothing. You wouldn’t go to work, because you’d have no desire to make money and keep your home. You wouldn’t respond to requests, encouragement or commands from other people, because you’d have no desire to please them or avoid their retaliation. You wouldn’t eat or drink, because you’d have no desire to stop being hungry or keep being alive. You’d die soon, but you wouldn’t actively kill yourself, because you’d have no desire to die. If you had no desires, you would absolutely not give a crap either way about anything.

But maybe desire isn’t always an emotion.

How do we define “emotion”? Lately I’ve realized that, for my whole life, I’ve been defining it as “any state of mind that can be described using the word ‘feel.’”

I’ve been using the word “desire” for the condition where your chest feels tight and you have to force yourself to breathe and your muscles are cramping with the effort to hold them back from trying to grab what you want… and I’ve also been using it for the condition where, rationally, you realize that the thing you’re reaching for is more likely to contribute to the achievement of your long-term goals than the alternative.

In either case you can say that you “want” the thing, or “feel a desire” for it. But maybe those two cases aren’t just different degrees of the same emotion.

What is emotion? It’s partially a mental condition. Mentally, you realize that you want something– to run away from danger (fear), to fight your enemy (anger), to be close to your loved ones (affection). It’s like a thought, but one that’s not necessarily put into words.

Usually, you don’t give conscious thought to why you want the thing. If you analyze it, you’ll almost always find that you want it because you think it will make you more happy than the alternative– “happy” being perhaps the only emotion that isn’t a form of desire.

Then again, maybe sadness isn’t a form of desire, either. It goes along with a wish for things to be better, but the sadness itself is focused on the feeling that things are bad right now. Most feelings involve motivations, but the mental portion of happiness or sadness could be described instead as an opinion: it’s the opinion that things are bad right now, or the opinion that things are good.

But for any feeling, in addition to the opinion or motivation itself, there are all the physical symptoms that go along with it.

When I try to imagine what fear feels like, my sensory memory supplies a pounding heart, cold limbs, muscles on a hair-trigger, ready to run or jump, and a slight tingly pain on the skin from the rush of adrenaline. Love feels warm, with a relaxed sensation, a swelling of the chest, and a different skin tingle that seeks touch. Anger is tight-chested, with pressure in my head and an ache in my cheeks and eyebrows, and the reflex to clench every muscle.

But what is an emotion, aside from a motivation or opinion and the body’s response to it? Is there anything beside those components?

I try to define what fear feels like, besides the opinion that I’m in danger and the motivation to save myself. Besides that, all I can think of are the physical sensations, ebbing and flowing in response to my thoughts about whatever I’m afraid of.

Every time I analyze a particular part of how an emotion feels, I realize that it’s a sensation of the body, not the mind. The only parts that aren’t physical are the thoughts that the situation is good or bad, and that I need to do something about it.

Maybe that’s what emotion is: the synergy of the mind’s part and the body’s part. Maybe the Tin Man was right: maybe you do need a heart to feel love.

Maybe it’s no accident that we use the word “feel” for both emotions and physical sensations.

I think Data had the “opinion and motivation” part of emotion. Probably he was programmed to have it. He considered some situations bad and some good, and he tried to seek out the good ones. And that couldn’t have been based only on logic, because if you try to base your desires only on logic, you eventually reach a question you can’t answer.

Why do I want to fight that alien monster?
Because if I don’t, it could kill my captain.

Why do I want it not to kill my captain?
Because he is valuable to the Federation.

Why do I care if the Federation loses a valuable captain?
Because anything that weakens the Federation threatens the political stability of the galaxy.

Why do I care about the stability of the galaxy?
Because instability could kill millions, including me and everyone I know.

Why do I care if everyone dies?
Because that would be terrible.

Why do I consider it terrible?
…I don’t know. I just do.

Logic is a way of deducing conclusions from premises. It can’t choose which premises you start out with.

Data seems to have had a few basic motivations, probably programmed into him by Dr. Soong, from which he reasoned all his decisions and conclusions. Basic motivations like “I must protect life.” He couldn’t logically explain why they made sense to him; he felt them in the same way we feel an instinct. But despite this, he still didn’t consider himself to have emotions.

Maybe it was just because he didn’t have an organic body. When something bad happened and he recognized that it was bad, his brain couldn’t respond by pumping his body full of the hormones of fear or anger or sadness.  He couldn’t feel the part of emotion that goes beyond opinion and motivation: the accelerated heartbeat, the tingles, the muscle tightness, the building of tears in the eyes. I think that was what he meant when he called himself emotionless.

Maybe the “emotion chip” he eventually got was a simulator that fed his brain the sensory feedback of an emotional body.

I was thinking about all this because I sometimes feel a bit guilty when I see something terrible in the news and don’t have a strong emotional reaction to it– because it’s too huge to process, or because I’ve been desensitized by reading so much news, or whatever causes those unfeeling moments I have.

But even when that happens, I still have the opinion-and-motivation part of emotion. I believe that what happened is bad. I experience a desire for it not to happen again. I do what I can to help prevent it.

And maybe that’s enough.

Data didn’t have the physical component of feeling. But he was a moral person. If a crewmate died, he didn’t feel a pang in his heart, a tightness in his throat and tears welling up in his eyes. But he still did everything he could to prevent their deaths. His desire to save them wasn’t physical, but it was strong– he prioritized it above other, less important things that he also valued.

So, if you do good things not because you love it, but because you believe you should… if you help others and protect civilization because you believe it’s the right thing to do, even if your heart doesn’t hurt when imagining the alternatives… if you see tragedies on the news and you don’t react by crying or clenching your teeth, but you still donate to charity or call your congressman to fight against those tragedies… then you don’t need to feel ashamed at not feeling the expected emotions. Data was one of the good guys, and you’re at least as good as he was.

Grocery list lifehack

Here’s an idea I had for a grocery list that’s reusable and also reminds you what things you might want to put on it.

You just need:

sticky labels
scissors
two large strong magnets
strong tape, like Gorilla Tape
many small magnets
(or a magnetic craft sheet and scissors to cut it apart)
a thin marker or pen
a rectangular cookie or candy tin

Tape the strong magnets to the bottom and top of the tin.

Stick the small magnets inside the bottom of the tin. Cut small pieces of the sticky labels and stick them inside the top of the tin. Write down all the groceries you commonly buy.

When you’re ready to go shopping, put a magnet next to each item you plan to buy this time. If you’re not sure what you need, skim the list and let it remind you.

In between shopping trips, you can store it on your fridge:

And when you go shopping, just take it down, close the tin and take it with you:

The Alien F-Word, and other twists of science-fictional linguistics

(Note: In this post, I mention several alien words from episodes of science fiction programs. The shows in question do not always display these words onscreen in written form. Therefore, I may not have spelled all of them in the way the scriptwriters intended. However, since the aliens who supposedly made up the words did not even use the same alphabet I use, my spellings cannot be said to be “incorrect.” So bear with me.)

The science-fiction show “Farscape” is not one of the most well-known shows out there, but it has one detail that is familiar to a wide circle of sci-fi fans, even those who have not seen any episodes of it.

That is, of course, the curse word “frell.”

In the far corner of the universe where astronaut John Crichton finds himself, this word is used by aliens of all species. “Translator microbes” native to this area make most speech understandable to Crichton, but not certain words. These untranslatables include measures of time, like “arn” and “microt,” and measures of distance, like “metra,” but also swear words, like “frell.”

Which is strange, since “frell” appears to be an exact synonym of the F-word in English. It can be used as an interjection (“Oh, frell!”) and as a verb meaning “to copulate with” (“You frelled her?”). It is used in the phrases “Frell you!” (a generic insult), “We’re frelled” (we’re in big trouble), and “Don’t frell it up” (don’t make a mistake). It acts as an otherwise meaningless expression of anger or shock, in phrases like “What the frell are you doing?” and “That’s frelling stupid.”

I cannot think of a single use of “frell” in all of Farscape where our own F-word could not have been substituted. That already strains my suspension of disbelief– just to suggest that any alien language (let alone all of them!) would have a swear word so close in meaning to ours. But even if they did, then by all logic, the translator microbes should have rendered it as its closest– really, identical– English equivalent.

Of course, to keep Farscape an acceptable TV show, they couldn’t. But they could have found ways around it. They could have made the usage of “frell” so different from the usage of any English curse that the microbes could reasonably consider it untranslatable. They could have had different alien species use different untranslatable curses, which would have made perfect sense, since their words are presumably being translated from different languages.

And for that matter, make different species use different units of measurement, too! The translator microbes offered the terms “arn” and “microt” for whatever alien measures of time were closest to an hour and a second, respectively. It’s possible that these were words they simply left untranslated. But for a unit of time close to a day, they gave the translation “solar day,” which suggested that they were trying to convert the aliens’ statements of time into terms Crichton could understand. For an approximately year-length period, they said “cycle,” which suggests a similar idea.

Unless there was an interplanetary time standard, these measures should have been different from species to species. If aliens, like humans, have one measure of time based on their planet’s rotation and another one based on their planet’s travel around their sun, then those words would indicate different amounts of time depending on the planet and star system. Any translation method with the goal of making this comprehensible to Crichton should have converted these measures into Earth days and Earth years. If it couldn’t do that, then it should have just left them untranslated, giving him different words from each alien species he spoke with, leaving him to ask the aliens for clarification on how much time they meant.

Maybe “arn,” “microt,” and whatever words were translated as “cycle” and “solar day” actually were part of an interplanetary system of time, agreed upon by all the species in this area of the universe. But that seems improbable; Crichton met groups of aliens that had gone many years with little or no contact with the surrounding planets, and they still used those words.

This is the sort of thing that always keeps me from getting fully sucked into any work of sci-fi, no matter how much I love it. Being a language geek has its downsides when it comes to appreciating fiction.

The “universal translator” in Star Trek drove me crazy. Okay, I’ll buy the idea of a machine that can learn to translate languages through exposure to them. It would have to be exposed to a lot of words, in context, along with visual or other physical cues, before it could reliably translate a language. And it wouldn’t be able to translate a word it had never heard before, unless there was significant contextual and etymological evidence to suggest a likely meaning for the word.

But a machine that can voice-over the entire first conversation of your first contact with an alien species, right from the first word? Forget it. It’s like the science-fiction and crime-drama trope of “enhancing” a blurry photograph. You can use technology to gather all manner of information, but not from a place where that information isn’t there to begin with.

It’s been suggested that the universal translator actually reads brain activity to figure out languages. But that presupposes that all, or nearly all, intelligent species in the Star Trek universe have brains similar enough that the same brainwave-reading equipment would work on them. It’s bad enough that they all look similar enough to be played by human actors, but near-identical brain structure as well? No way! Not when they’ve canonically got different internal organs everywhere else. It’s as unrealistic as the Vulcan mind-meld working on every species. As far as I remember, Picard’s Enterprise only encountered two species on whom the translator did not immediately work. That is too high a success rate.

And you may recall that one of those species was met in the episode “Darmok and Jalad.” These aliens communicated only through historical and/or literary references, used as metaphors for all the day-to-day situations they encountered. For example, when they were met with a situation of failure, they said, “Shaka, when the walls fell.” To express the idea of realization, they said “Sokath, his eyes uncovered!” Picard spends most of the episode trying to figure out what they mean by “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

The thing is, if a species really did communicate this way, their speech would have to have evolved (devolved?) from a more typical language. If you say “Shaka, when the walls fell” to indicate failure, that quotation must have originated in a time when words like “walls” and “fell” actually had individual meanings of their own.

If words no longer have individual meanings, and exist only as parts of metaphorical phrases, then modern people who speak that language have no way of reading the stories from which the metaphors came. So when they use the reference “Shaka, when the walls fell,” they can’t actually have the image of Shaka’s falling walls in their minds. To them, that series of syllables means nothing but “failure.”

These aliens’ culture has apparently changed until they say “Shaka, when the walls fell” when the thought in their mind is just “I’ve failed” or “We are going to fail.”  So why doesn’t the brainwave-reading universal translator render their words as an expression of the thought they’re actually having?  I mean, English speakers say the word “goodbye,” which is actually a shortened version of the phrase “God be with you,” but most of us don’t know that, and when we say that word, we’re not always thinking about God actually accompanying the person we’re saying it to. I’m pretty sure a universal translator aimed at an English speaker would not give a translation of “God be with you” for every instance of “goodbye.”

I try to spackle the plothole by assuming that this species actually had two languages: an informal language for use at home, with individual word meanings and everything, and a formal language for polite company, composed entirely of metaphors. But it’s still weird that they wouldn’t try using the informal language, when their attempts at talking to Picard in the formal language kept falling flat like Shaka’s walls.

Even in my favorite novels, this language thing can ruin pieces of the story. Charles Sheffield is wildly creative when it comes to making up aliens, but his names for them are inexplicable. A member of a species that communicated only through smell was somehow named Atvar H’sial, a sound-based name that she could obviously neither say nor hear. A team exploring an unfamiliar planet found two heretofore unknown species, which communicated through high-pitched shrieking. Upon learning to communicate with them, the language expert reported that they were called the Coromar and the Maricore. I can only assume the linguist was making that part up, because their language did not contain the sounds necessary to form those names, and there was no other species around to name them.

It’s like Spock and his mind-meld in “The Devil in the Dark.” How could that blobby creature tell him telepathically that it was called a Horta? How could it be called a Horta? Did it have a spoken language with human-pronounceable words, and did it, for some reason, just never attempt using that language with the humans? Did it have a sound-based language that wasn’t human-pronounceable, and was “Horta” just as close as Spock could get to saying its word for its species?

Or was “Horta” a translation of some word in its non-sound-based language– a language based on smells or touches or ground vibrations or electromagnetic waves? That wouldn’t make sense either. How could a non-sound-based message translate into a particular series of meaningless syllables? (My pet theory is that it’s not meaningless: perhaps the creature’s name for itself literally means “garden” or “cultivation” in its language, so Spock translated it into the root of the English word “horticulture.” But that doesn’t make much sense either; why would a subterranean rock-being associate itself with gardens?)

It’s not just the aliens who speak unrealistically in science fiction. Star Trek is set about 200 years from now, but the people use pretty much modern English. (Or rather, English that changes depending on the year of filming. In episodes of The Original Series, I catch the occasional phrase that I suspect is 1960′s slang, like when a minor character in “The Enemy Within” reports to Scotty that he has fallen down, using the words “I took a flop.”)

This is, of course, a flaw of nearly all science fiction. It’s fair to assume that people two centuries from now will be speaking something as different from present-day speech as present-day speech is from what people were speaking two centuries before now. (When I was a kid, I thought the changing of language might stop with the current generation, because we’ve gotten so good at writing things down and documenting what the correct spelling, grammar and usage is. But as I grew up, I realized our technology was speeding the changing of speech more than it was slowing it down. Centuries ago, it took newly coined words a long time to spread. Now, a new word or phrase can span the globe in a matter of days, when a few influential people use it on social media.)

Of course, I can give Star Trek the benefit of the doubt and assume that people in this future really are speaking drastically evolved languages, and it’s just being translated for the benefit of the listener (in the same way I can read a novel set in France and understand that the characters really are speaking French, even if their words show up in English on the pages).

But still, when I’m engrossed in a foreign or futuristic story, the spell can be broken for me by something as minor as a character making a bunch of puns. I have to stretch my suspenders of disbelief to imagine that all the puns work in both modern English and their language! But at least I can try and pretend that the puns they actually used were translated into somewhat similar puns in English for my benefit. It’s worse when a major plot point hinges on a character misunderstanding another’s words in a particular way; then I can’t pretend that it was just a similar thing, I have to accept that the words have that same double meaning in both my language and the characters.’

There is no perfect solution to this. Misunderstandings, and puns as well, are part of life. A story without them wouldn’t be realistic. And you pretty much have to write your dialogue in such a way that readers will understand it. Few audiences are willing to learn a new language, or even a drastically altered version of an old language, just so they can read a story.

Authors just have to do their best, and learn from their mistakes. In “Kea’s Flight,” I had the characters speak pretty much present-day English, suggesting that the natural development of language had been stunted by the control of a totalitarian government. Looking back on it now, I feel that wasn’t quite enough reason for the language to remain as unaltered as it did.

I think I did a better job with “Furnace,” my short story in the anthology “This is How You Die.” In it, I described a future so distant that our descendants have evolved not just linguistically but physically, and their concept of wordplay has been shaped by the heightened abilities of their minds and bodies. They are explicitly stated to be speaking a future language, not English, and their puns are left somewhat to the reader’s imagination:

In the Pnn-kiai language, the sentence she had just spoken was an aural palindrome: recorded and played backward, it would sound the same. Skeeiao had always been a lover of wordplay.

I’m not saying that was a perfect solution either. There are very few works of fiction that have handled this sort of thing in a way that truly impresses me. The “Ender’s Game” series tried to have young characters using an occasional future slang word, but mostly it seemed like an afterthought. “1984″ came up with the innovative idea of Newspeak, but, for the sake of readability, had to relegate it to the status of a work in progress, a language-in-the-making that nobody actually spoke yet.

For an example of future speech that’s different enough to be believable, but familiar enough to understand, I have to recommend the movie “Demolition Man”: a futuristic vision that’s a comedy on the surface, but has much deeper and more well-thought-out worldbuilding than most viewers realize.

The cost of good mental health, and my fuel-efficient body


If gasoline is expensive and you have a lot of driving to do, then you want a car that can do a lot of driving without burning much gas. Similarly, if food is hard to get and you have a lot of physical labor to do, then you want a body that can do a lot of exercise without burning many calories.

So, most of human history has encouraged the survival of fuel-efficient bodies that gain weight easily and don’t lose it easily. They can lose weight if they try hard enough, but in some cases, the amount they would have to try would be enough work to comprise a full-time job.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.

Living Independently: The farm in my window

In the world of autistic adults, we keep hearing about the challenge of “living independently.” This is used to mean such things as cooking one’s own food, shopping, cleaning and maintaining a household, as well as holding a job to support oneself.

I have made unusual progress in that regard. I’ve had a job for over nine years, and my husband and I manage our small condo in Columbia Heights very well. Bills get paid on time, the place is clean, and we always have tasty and healthy meals to eat.

But, somewhere in the back of my mind, a little voice keeps telling me that this traditional idea of being “independent” is just another way of being dependent.

One of the big disillusionments of growing up, for me, was realizing that almost all my possessions will need to be replaced someday, no matter how durable they seem right now. And worse, realizing that when that time comes, the place I originally got them might not carry them anymore. Stores change out their inventory, and manufacturers discontinue products. As a consumer, I’m at the mercy of the market, and the things I like to buy could stop being available at any moment. Shopping for your own stuff is just a way of being dependent on the people who produce and sell that stuff. Alas, they are not always dependable.

In the same way, having a job is a form of dependence on an employer, who could decide to fire you or cut your hours at any time. There is no way to live independently; everything in the world is interconnected, and everything depends upon other things.

At times, I have very little trust in the infrastructure of society as a whole. At times, it drives me into a panic that I am dependent on a society that is largely unstable and unsustainable.

We all have our ways of coping with this sort of worry. And mine is to take “living independently” to as far an extreme as I can take it. The more self-sufficient my home is, the more I can imagine that I’d be able to survive if society somehow collapsed around me.

I guess, in a way, I’m sort of a doomsday prepper. But most of the time, there’s nothing frantic about the process. Making my home as self-sufficient as possible is a pleasant and calming project for me. I feel a great satisfaction whenever I figure out a new way to reuse something, make something from scratch, or substitute a more sustainable alternative for something.

I make my own lip balm from castor oil and a few drops of peppermint oil and lemon oil combined in a glass roller bottle. (Castor oil is sold as a laxative in pharmacies. Scented essential oils are sold in natural-supplement stores; I use peppermint and lemon because I’ve found that combination helps prevent the lip balm from growing bacteria and starting to smell bad). Sure, I have to keep buying the ingredients, but not nearly as often as I would have to keep buying pre-made lip balm… and I don’t have to feel wasteful throwing out a little plastic tube every time.

I make my own spray cleaner with a mixture of water, rubbing alcohol and dish soap. I clean my glasses with a similar mixture that’s higher in alcohol, and I re-use cloth lens wipes (though I have to be careful to keep them very clean, because even a tiny grain of dirt on a lens cloth can make a scratch on my glasses).

In the kitchen, I use old washcloths instead of paper towels. I keep a stack of them in one cabinet, and in another I keep an empty wastebasket with unwound coat hangers forming a sort of metal clothesline across the top. When a washcloth gets dirty from cleaning up a spill, I hang it on the wire over the wastebasket, and when they’re all dirty, I put them in the washing machine with a generous splash of bleach to kill any germs and fungi.

This system is still dependent on my ability to get bleach, detergent and running water, but it’s better than having to keep buying paper towels. I keep a few on hand for guests, but very rarely use them myself.

And, of course, John and I make a lot of our own food from scratch, down to homemade bread, sauces and pie crusts.

But as Carl Sagan said, to really make a pie from scratch you would have to create the universe. No matter how you cook your food, you can’t make every part of it yourself. Even if you start with the ingredients exactly as they are found in nature, you still have to get them from somewhere.

That’s why I’ve become a little bit obsessed with making some of my food out of such basic elements as earth, water and air.

In other words, growing a garden.

I’m not an expert, by any means. I’m figuring it out as I go along. And there have been lots of setbacks– bugs, mold, overwatering, underwatering, plants dying for reasons completely hidden from me. But I keep doing it, because every time I succeed, the joy of harvesting and eating home-grown vegetables– even just a few– is well-nigh addictive.

I do grow a few things on the balcony. But the bulk of my veggie garden is on shelves by the window; that way I don’t have to worry about the weather, squirrels, or birds (unless Sirius decides to raid the plants someday, but as a mostly insectivorous species of bird, he’d probably eat the bugs on my crops before he’d eat the crops themselves).

The window faces west, not south, which would be preferable. But I still get strong light all afternoon, and I supplement it with several LED lamps plugged into a timer.

It’s a pretty simple arrangement. A set of shelves, open on both the front and the back, to allow both me and the sun access to the plants… placed on top of a sheet of plastic to protect the carpet. (I tried forever to find a suitably-sized plastic tray with a lip around the edge, but boot trays were too small, and farming mats designed for livestock were too big. I eventually bought a roll of clear vinyl and rolled up the edges, then clipped them in place with binder clips, creating my own lipped tray… so if a water spill happens, it’ll stop when it gets to the edge.)

The plants are growing in a wide assortment of containers. Small plants like basil and green onions are fine with little flowerpots. Bigger things, like potatoes and tomatoes, need larger pots, and for many of them I just used big plastic storage containers. Poke a few holes in the bottom of a storage bin, use the lid as a tray underneath, and you can grow potatoes in your window.

I like to buy heirloom seeds from online suppliers like Seed Savers and Park Seed. If seeds are labeled “heirloom,” that means they’re meant to be grown for generations, harvesting the seeds from each plant and planting them to start the next season of growth (unlike hybrid plants and some genetically-modified plants that are unable to reproduce). To have a self-sufficient garden, you’ve got to have reproductively-viable plants.

But the internet is not the only source I get my plants from. Some of them I get totally free. It’s surprising how many growable and reproducible plants you can get out of your kitchen waste!

I’m not kidding. Plant the seeds from some leftover cherry tomatoes, and you can grow tons of tomatoes of your own:

Have an old potato that’s sprouting? Cut it into chunks, with about one sprouting eye per chunk. Put a little dirt in the bottom of a big storage tote. Bury the chunks. Water them. As the sprouts grow upward, add more dirt, until you’ve filled the bin and the potato plants are going crazy with foliage. In about three months you’ll be able to harvest your own potatoes:

Bought some green onions, chopped up the stems to season your food, and don’t know what to do with the little white bulbs at the base? Plant them. They’ll grow new stems, and you might never need to buy green onions again:

You can even grow your own watermelons from watermelon seeds (not the few seeds in a seedless watermelon– those are genetically messed-up– but the ones from a normal seeded watermelon). They’re harder to grow than most of my plants, because you have to hand-pollinate them by picking off a male flower and rubbing it against a female flower, and even then the rate of success is pretty low. I never actually got a melon to grow to full size. But I got fairly far once, before bugs ate it. This was before I learned to keep a close eye on the pest population. If I had kept cleaning the bugs off the underside of the melon as it grew, it might’ve survived.

When I first encountered bugs on my plants, I was horrified. I imagined that they were a scourge of the kind you see in movies, like zombies or gremlins, where you have to kill every single last one or they’ll all come back and you’re doomed.

But gradually I’ve come to realize that they’re a fact of life in a garden, and my realistic goal is not to exterminate them all, but to maintain a balance where there are few enough of them for my plants to stay alive and keep producing food.

I’ve had little gnats that land on the leaves and appear to suck their juices; I’ve had some sort of tiny black dots that crawl around and chew holes in the leaves; and worst of all I’ve had spider mites– near-invisible tiny creatures that suck the goodness out of my plants, leaving the leaves transparent in spots, and festooning them with little spidery webs in the process.

If a few of these are on a plant, that doesn’t mean the plant is about to die. I currently have several bean vines that are suffering from mild infestations, while still growing and producing plenty of tasty beans. It’s just a matter of keeping things under control.

This means spraying the plants as a regular part of tending them, not just as an occasional attack to purge the pests. I spray with a mixture of water, dish soap and rosemary oil. Mixed in a regular spray bottle, it’s a mild, gentle, and pretty effective pesticide, and it costs very little to make (a few drops of rosemary oil go a long way, and it can be bought from the same supplement stores and online retailers as my lip-balm supplies).  I do it whenever I notice new bug damage on leaves, which can be once a week or so. It doesn’t eliminate all the bugs, but it keeps them at bay enough to keep my veggies alive.

I also hang fly tape, which is sold at hardware stores: a set of two spools, one wrapped in sticky white ribbon, which stretches across the area you choose and then winds around the second spool. I mounted them on the wooden shelves I use:

As the ribbon collects flying insects, you wind more of it around the empty spool. It lasts a long time and really helps keep the fly and gnat population down.

Most of the bugs that eat plants won’t bite a human, and won’t get into your stored food. So, beyond the harm to your garden, which your diligence can keep under control, you don’t really have to worry about those bugs being in your house. There are bugs in every house, and the ones that get into your veggie garden are a lesser evil than the ones that eat your clothes, your cereal, or your blood.

Sometimes, though, plants do die, and you just have to let them go and plant something new in the pot.

You can re-use potting soil. It might have bugs, bacteria or fungi in it, though, so it helps to sterilize it. You can put it in some large container with holes in the bottom, put that inside another container with no holes in the bottom, and pour boiling water through it from a big teakettle.

It also may have nutrients depleted from the plants that have grown in it before, so it helps to add fertilizer of some sort. Hardware and plant stores sell good all-purpose fertilizing powders that you can mix with water and use to water the plants.

If you’re very ambitious, you can also make your own fertilizer with a composter. The Worm Factory or the Can-o-Worms is a good one. Add red wiggler worms, newspaper, and your biodegradable garbage, and you’ll have a supply of nice rich fertilizer in a few months. (They have to be red wigglers, not night crawlers or standard earthworms. And if you can find someone in your area who does worm composting already, it’s better to get worms locally than have them shipped through the mail; they’re delicate little souls.)

My parents have done this since I was a kid, and they have the loveliest garden. It inspired the title story in my collection “If the World Ended, Would I Notice?”

I don’t know if I could support myself with my garden if I had to. It would probably involve starting new plants in every single window and still living on the edge of starvation, if I survived at all. But I take comfort in every new bit of experience I gain in self-sufficiency, every new skill I learn that makes me a little stronger on my own.

I don’t think people should stop depending on each other, but I think the world would be nicer if we all learned the simpler and more sustainable– though less convenient– ways of getting the things we need. When you have eaten a tiny, delicious bowl of beans that took five plants on your windowsill three weeks to produce, you never look at vegetables quite the same way again.

Curing hyperkeratosis

This is a post about the amazing progress we’ve made on the health of our bird. It goes into more detail about the overgrown foot scales we mentioned before, and the exact process we used for treating them.

If you don’t like looking at pictures of scaly bird feet, both healthy and unhealthy, then this post is not for you.

Continue reading

A year of Sirius Marley Black: Starlings in review

Several months after our parrot Rain Man went to his new home, the mixture of sadness and relief turned into empty nest syndrome. I had expected that I would want to adopt a new pet someday, and after all that time I was finally starting to feel ready.

I knew we had to choose carefully. I still felt guilty that we had given up our previous pet, even though his life and ours had become irreconcilable and he was undoubtedly happier with his new family. I knew how much of an upheaval it is for an animal to move from one home to another, and I wouldn’t wish it on any creature. I wanted my next pet to be for life. I wanted a bird– birds are what I relate to– but it couldn’t be a bird with the same needs Rain Man had.

John’s parental instinct, like mine, is focused mostly on pet birds, but he didn’t feel as strong a need for a bird in the house as I did. Nevertheless, around the time I felt ready, he agreed he was ready too.

Secretly, I had wanted a starling for a long time. It wasn’t a secret from John, but I didn’t discuss it with a lot of people at the time, because starlings are such unpopular creatures, and almost no one I knew would consider one as a pet.

From childhood, I’d been aware that they are kept as pets sometimes. One of my favorite books as a kid was “Arnie the Darling Starling”– which, despite having a title like a children’s book, is actually a pet memoir like “Oogy” or “Marley and Me.” I grew up knowing that starlings can do quite well in captivity, and that they can learn to talk like parrots, and become very affectionate with their human adopters. I knew that in the wild they’re considered horrible pests, and so there is no law against taking them from the wild and keeping them, as there is for protected bird species.

Early in our relationship, back in 2005 when our pet was the dear departed Popcorn the cockatiel, John and I once found an injured starling on the sidewalk. It was disoriented and moving slowly enough for us to pick it up, despite having no visible wounds. There had just been a storm. John hypothesized that the bird had landed on a wet, insufficiently insulated power line and gotten a bad shock.

The poor thing didn’t live long, but in the few hours it was with us, we went online and found a starling Yahoogroup… enough for us to learn that there were lots of others who had taken in starlings, and places where people shared information and resources on how to care for them. I remembered that, even though adopting a starling wasn’t a practical option for us until much later.

And last year, it became real.

Times had changed a bit. The starling Yahoogroup no longer came up when I searched for starlings online. But there was a website, www.starlingtalk.com, with a message board for starling discussions. There was a recommended diet, comprised of dog food, poultry mash, and powdered egg. There were guidelines on what sort of cages and toys a starling needed.

And there was a board for people to post if they wanted to adopt a starling, or give one up for adoption.

Back when we were volunteering for a parrot rescue center, I remember hearing that there was an organization devoted to addressing the widespread problem of unprepared parrot-owners. Its mission was to spread awareness about what it takes to care for a parrot, so that people would be educated before they made the choice to adopt one.

It had the best possible name for such an organization: “Planned Parrothood.”

There is no such organization for starlings, even though almost all pet-starling “parenthood” is unplanned. Starling-owners are mostly people who found a mysterious baby bird, managed to keep it alive, and then were surprised and delighted to find that the grown-up bird could talk, made a pretty awesome pet, and didn’t want to be released into the wild. Starling-owners usually stumble into the whole thing without asking for it, but they are, for the most part, a happy and unregretful bunch.

With good reason. Starlings are friendly, funny, loving, talkative, easy and cheap to care for, and so little that they couldn’t hurt you even if they wanted to.

On the message board there were some people looking to rehome their starlings, but they tended to get adopted quite fast. The balance between people trying to give up a bird and people trying to adopt one was much more equal than it was on parrot forums. And, of the few who wanted to give one up, I didn’t see any who were rejecting their bird because they couldn’t get along with it.

Other birds not getting along with it– that wasn’t unheard of. When someone finally contacted me about my wish to adopt a starling, the bird she offered was a four-year-old male who was up for adoption because he fought with one of his cage-mates.

Marley, as he was called, had fallen from the nest as a baby and been raised by a wildlife rehabber. She had intended to release him, and avoided petting and cuddling him as a baby, for fear it would cause him to bond with humans instead of his own species. But, cuddling or no cuddling, he bonded with her anyway. When it came time to release him, he refused to go.

So for three years or so, he was her pet, along with another starling she’d raised, named Thurston. But she became unable to care for them, for health reasons of some kind. He and his cage-mate were taken in by another woman who was seeking a companion for the starling she had.

Thurston was a good friend for her bird. Marley wasn’t. He and the stranger attacked each other again and again, pecking and plucking out each other’s feathers. Marley was the main aggressor. His face developed a few bare patches, but in this picture, he’s clearly thinking, “You should see the other bird.” From what I’m told, that one’s face became almost completely bald.

After a year of this, I got an email from his adoptive family.

I had prepared for this like crazy. Before I even knew when or from whom I was going to adopt a starling, I had stocked up on dog food, chicken food, egg powder, applesauce and dried mealworms to feed him, and all the recommended elements of an avian first aid kit. After two failed attempts at buying a suitable cage and one failed attempt at making one, I had managed to put together a pretty good aviary out of chicken wire, latchable dog doors, natural branch perches from a nearby park, and the frame from an old folding wardrobe.

I had even picked a name already. In fact, I’d picked the name years ago, around July of 2010 when John and I were dreaming pipe dreams of moving to Tower, Minnesota and starting an art gallery. I had imagined the focal point of the gallery being a huge aviary with talking starlings in it. They would all be named after stars: Alpha Centauri, Arcturus and Sirius (Alfie, Arkie and Siri for short).

By this time, I had settled on the name “Sirius” for the one starling I could realistically have. Since our Tower fantasy, “Siri” had become an even more fitting nickname for a talking bird, with the 2011 launch of the iPhone 4S. Besides, it was the year of my 32nd birthday, which is 100,000 in binary. The starling I adopted was going to be my extra-special gift for this mathematically significant birthday… and Sirius is a binary star system.

My eagerness was overwhelming at this point. I’d been disappointed once already, when someone in another state had thought she would be able to send a friend to bring me a young bird she’d rescued, but the travel plans fell through and I never heard from her again.

And I was disappointed a few more times as we tried to figure out a date for Marley’s adoption. But after two or three rain checks, a woman and two young girls finally showed up at my door, with a frantic little bird scurrying around inside a tiny carrier.

I believe this was the first photo I ever took of him. With effort, we had just relocated the panicked little creature from his carrier into the big cage I’d built for him, and he was perched on one of the branches near the top, getting his bearings.

That was how he entered my life, a nervous and disoriented little thing with bald patches on his face, a funny upward-curling feather under his chin, and chunky overgrown scales on his feet. Sirius Marley Black.

The lady who gave him to me said that he didn’t adapt well to new things. Perhaps he hadn’t, in her experience. She also said that his previous owner had considered him a not-very-tame bird, but with her, he had opened up and was happy to follow people around and perch on them. Perhaps his personality depends on his environment.

With me, he seemed to adapt just fine. Within an hour of entering his new cage, he took a blueberry from me as I shoved it through the chicken wire. Soon he was eating his ground-up dog-and-chicken-food mix from the bowl, sipping his water, and sampling his applesauce.

Starlings are extremely social. In the wild, they live in enormous flocks called “murmurations,” which move like living clouds. Look it up; there are videos online, and they’re amazing to watch.

Sometimes I feel sad that Sirius will never get to be part of one of those. But he doesn’t want to; he was raised by humans, and feels that we are his flock.

A starling in captivity is kind of like a human in modern society. Humans, too, are a very social species by nature. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent nearly all their time in each other’s company. But in modern times, humans often live lives where we spend most of the day alone, or at a job where we do mostly-solitary work. It’s unnatural, but we get by. We live for the time when we get off work, and spend the evenings and weekends with people we care about.

Sirius has adapted to a similar life. When we’re away, he keeps himself entertained by singing, playing with the toys in his cage, and listening to music I leave on for him. But when we get home, he’s always happy to see us.

Within a few days after his adoption, he was tame enough to perch on us and all our friends. Starlings aren’t cuddly, but they’re very friendly. One day four of us played a game around the dining room table, all wearing safari hats so he wouldn’t poo on our heads and get his feet tangled in our hair. He happily jumped from hat to hat all evening. Heads are a starling’s favorite perch.

Some starlings will sit on someone’s head and act as if they’re taking a bath in the hair. Sirius doesn’t do this, but water baths are one of his favorite things ever.

I made a bathtub for his cage out of a big plastic pitcher with a hole cut in it, so he wouldn’t get water everywhere when bathing. He uses it often, but he prefers the bath bowl we keep in the shower.

A starling bathing is amazing to watch. It’s a blur of fluttering and splashing, faster than a human could ever move– kind of like a dog that shakes itself after a bath, except the starling is doing it to get wet, not dry. In the absence of barriers, a person ten feet away could feel water drops from it.

And just as quickly as it began, it’s suddenly over, and zoom! The starling is done bathing, and rockets from the bath bowl across the room to another perch. Usually he’ll make several flights from place to place immediately after his bath, all with the same sort of frenetic, hyperactive too-fast zooming motion– maybe as part of his effort to dry himself off. He’s on the cage! He’s on my head! He’s on the cage again– now he’s on the door!

Hyperactive, inquisitive, curious– that’s my Siri. When he’s not flying crazily around, he’s poking his face into everything, looking for treasure or bugs or whatever. If I’m lying in bed watching a movie, he’ll come and crawl all over me, poking his beak at my clothing. He’s even tried to look down John’s pants.

Starlings love to pry things open with their beaks. Folds in clothing, spaces between your fingers, your mouth (especially when you’re eating), any small crevice they can find. His favorite toy now is an Advent calendar I got him during the Christmas season. I hide small treats in the pockets, and he happily goes around poking and prying in each one.

Like most starlings, he doesn’t like being touched. He’ll cuddle on his own terms: perched on my shoulder, snuggling against my neck, playing with my hair, just as long as he’s in control and no hands get anywhere near him.

Only rarely will he let me pet him without complaint:

He doesn’t always hate hands, mind you; he’ll play with them if he is the one doing all the playing. One of his sweetest expressions of affection is to land on my hand while I’m working at the computer, and start poking at my fingers. Sometimes he saves me from wasting my whole day on the internet; sometimes he just messes up my typing.

Poke a finger at him and he’ll make the most hilarious sounds of starling rage. A weird thing about starlings: they don’t express anger with instinctive sounds natural to their species. They almost always seem to use mimicked sounds. I heard of one person whose starling would make an angry parrot sound she’d learned from the other pets, whenever a finger was poked at her. I heard of another starling who would say the words “I’ve got a question!” when its nails were being trimmed.

As winter approached, Siri’s new plumage came in, and his face was no longer bald. His feet have also become healthier, having shed the overgrown scales with the help of aloe gel rubbed on his toes every day. God, does he hate when we do that! He forgives us afterwards with a grace that Rain Man could never approach– but when we’re doing it, he’s a noise-box of angry and adorable protests.

Sirius doesn’t have many words to say, and the ones he says are mumbled baby-talk. He says things that sound vaguely like “Hello,” “Hi sweetheart,” “Pretty bird,” “Birdy,” “Crackers,” and something that might be “Pretty Chester.”

We have no idea who Chester is, if anyone. He might have made it up, out of sounds from other words. He does love to rearrange sounds. Sometimes his “Pretty Chester” sounds more like “Poor Chester,” sometimes like “Peaches,” sometimes like “Purchase,” sometimes just the word “chess” amid a bunch of mumbling.

A starling song has some instinctive starling noises in it, mixed with sounds the bird learned from various things in its environment. When Sirius sings, it’s a fantastic medley of chatters, whistles, clicks, shrieks, melodic bubbling-water sounds, a phone ring, a dog whine, and some yapping and growling like a little dog that’s having a lot of fun playing tug-o-war. Plus a few “Chesters” thrown in here and there.

And, singing or talking, and especially when scolding us for poking a finger in his face, his little pointy wide-open beak is one of the funniest-looking things ever.

If I eat in front of him, he shows an almost hilarious level of greed, zooming to my shoulder and shoving his beak in my mouth to try and get my food. Some foods he acually seems to prefer when they’re in my mouth. He’ll try to eat anything if he sees me eating it; I have to have my non-bird-safe snacks in a different room.

The starling forum recommends a certain diet for adult birds, but it can be varied depending on people’s needs. Some feed their starlings the dog food and chicken feed in one bowl, and chopped hard-boiled eggs in another. Some put water in the mix because their birds won’t eat it dry. But this is the recipe I use:

2 cups dry dog food. (The protein amount should be in the 25-32% range, and the fat should be in the 10-14% range. Make sure the first ingredient is some type of meat. Poultry is fine; a starling is no more related to a chicken or turkey than you are to a cow or pig.)

1/2 cup chicken feed (the pellets for egg-laying hens, often called “layer mash”– not the medicated mash for chicks. Yes, starlings can eat chicken food even though they’re not closely related to chickens.)

2 tablespoons powdered egg (available in large cans; I use the Honeyville brand. Yes, they’re chicken eggs; see above.)

Mix all ingredients together, and blend to a powder in food processor.

Every day, feed two tablespoons of the dry mix in one bowl, two tablespoons of unsweetened applesauce in a separate bowl, and about 2/3 cup of water in a third.

Treats can include bugs, bits of cornbread, chopped nuts, and especially blueberries– which Sirius attacks and tears to pieces with a frightening level of energy.

That’s the icing on the cake of starling-parenthood joy– how sustainable it is. A bag of dog food, a bag of layer mash and a jar of powdered egg will feed a starling for a long, long time, saving money and minimizing any effects that pet-food production has on the environment. Starling droppings aren’t messy and smelly like dog poop; they dissolve almost instantly in water. I use polar-fleece fabric as a cage liner and machine-wash it. But using your junk mail is fine too; it’s free and biodegradable.

Dried crickets and mealworms from a pet shop make good treats, but your free and plentiful household bugs can serve the same purpose. In the wild, starlings eat mostly bugs. (Just avoid any bright-colored ones, which are often poisonous. And stay away from worms and caterpillars; they’re the most common things for parasites to lay eggs in. Small moths and beetles are usually fine.)

Even the procurement of the starling itself is earth-friendly. Starlings aren’t bred in buildings that draw power, produce waste, and affect the ecosystem around them. They’re bred by their parents in nests in the trees. And most starling-keepers don’t even upset the parent birds by taking in the baby, because it’s usually one that the parents rejected anyway.

Nature can be cruel. In wild bird nests, the smallest and weakest babies are often pushed out, because birds can’t afford to expend the effort of feeding unless the offspring shows great promise of survival. Sometimes it’s the parents who eject the unwanted baby, sometimes it’s the siblings, but almost always it will be pushed out again if someone tries to return it. (This is probably the origin of the myth that birds will reject any nestling that’s been touched by humans.)

But even if taking in a starling did reduce wild starling populations, it wouldn’t be any kind of ecological disaster, because starlings are not in the least bit threatened. They are a plentiful bird, living on small amounts of plentiful and easy-to-obtain necessities. It’s almost ridiculous how small the carbon footprint of a pet starling is.

On Youtube, there are starling-haters who go around posting trollish comments on any cute videos of pet starlings. Things like “I’d shoot it if I ever saw it,” and “Starlings are rats with wings.”

They’re picking the wrong target. Pet starlings are harmless. Fine, so they think wild starlings are a menace to the ecosystem… well, so are humans. Anything they accuse starlings of doing, humans do a hundred times worse. How would you like it if that tired old science-fiction trope played out in your home: an alien appears, recites a list of atrocities committed by humans, and threatens to execute you for the crimes of your species?

Hey, Youtube trolls threatening to shoot someone’s cute pet starling– you are that alien. Our pet starlings don’t threaten native birds or eat farmers’ crops, any more than you personally have committed genocide. In fact, you should thank us for keeping a starling out of the wild, where you think it will do so much horrible damage.

He likes it better here anyway.