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.
Unlike parrot-owners, 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.