Smarty Pants and the Bird Brained Scheme

My youngest son is fixing to turn eight soon. I think I have mostly come to terms with this, balancing that inevitable feeling of loss a mother experiences when her children begin to rely on her less with the joy and pride of watching it happen.

And he has so far stuck a little closer to me than his older brother, who if he had his choice this summer might be away at a different camp every week and involved in every activity he can think of.

Happy Birthday, Smarty Pants!  photo credit: Happy Birthday via photopin (license)
Happy Birthday, Smarty Pants! photo credit: Happy Birthday via photopin (license)

Because my eldest is so keen to branch out, my younger son and I have gotten to spend a lot of one-on-one time so far this summer. It’s been fun, mostly. Like all children he has his exasperating moments, but he really is a great kid, smart, thoughtful, and delightfully funny.

A week or so ago we dropped big brother at day camp and headed for the zoo. My youngest is fascinated by animals. He’ll watch them for hours, making note of their behaviors and asking really smart questions, so this was the perfect day trip for the two of us.

But as we made our way back to the new polar bear exhibit that day, my son was more interested in birds. I’m not talking about the zoo birds with clipped wings and identification bracelets. His attention was captured by the plain old Missouri birds that fly freely in and out, visiting the concession stands so they can eat the fallen French fries.

He walked along happily identifying for me all the little birds that crossed our path, and like any good mother I feigned interest. That is until we saw a European starling. When he saw that one, he huffed, “Stupid starling. That’s all Shakespeare’s fault.”

And that’s when I realized I must have really been listening. I stopped walking. Because if your very nearly eight-year-old child references Shakespeare, you pay attention, right?

Given enough time, a hypothetical starling typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce one of Shakespeare's plays. I'm betting it would be Henry IV, Part I. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
This man is responsible for the American Invasion of the European Starling. Stupid Shakespeare. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

So I asked, “What’s Shakespeare’s fault?”

“The American invasion of the European Starling,” he replied, as though I were incredibly stupid for asking the question.

Now you have to understand, I hold degrees in both zoology and literature. As far as I know, my almost-eight-year-old holds degrees in neither so he might have been right. I might have been incredibly stupid to ask the question, but I had to know what he was talking about. I asked him to elaborate. This, along with a few details I filled in later, is the story he told me:

In March of 1890, German immigrant, pharmaceutical manufacturer, Shakespeare lover, and bird enthusiast Eugene Schieffelin released sixty imported starlings into New York’s Central Park. Schieffelin was a member of The American Acclimatization Society, a group dedicated to introducing the charming birds of Europe into America so it would feel more like home.

As one of the many species of birds mentioned by Shakespeare (in Act 1, scene 3 of Henry IV, Part 1 in case you want to look it up), the starling made the list and though none of the previous bird introductions had been successful, the starling was made of tougher stuff.

What started out as a population of 60 has become a population of over 200 million invasive, shiny-headed, avian invaders, the nemesis of blue birds and woodpeckers, of farmers and airline pilots. They’ve even been known to out-compete the redwing blackbird for fallen French fries at the zoo concession stand.

photo credit: Starling via photopin (license)
Given enough time, a hypothetical starling typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce one of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m betting it would be Henry IV, Part I. photo credit: Starling via photopin (license)

I asked my son how he knew this story. He rolled his eyes and explained that he’d read it in at least two different books. And that’s how I learned the history of the American invasion of the European Starling and also why it is you shouldn’t let your smarty pants kids read.

Because that seven-year-old will soon be eight and his pants are only going to get smarter.

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9 thoughts on “Smarty Pants and the Bird Brained Scheme

  1. Do tell what book your clever 7 going 8 year-old was reading with this info. Plus you could share with him that over here (UK) the starling numbers have declined over the last 10-15 years. I don’t think I’ve seen one around here in all that time and they used to nest under our roof edge, too. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/mar/28/rsbp-garden-birdwatch-survey is, as you can see, an old article about some of the disappearing birds (as well as newer ones arriving).

    1. I believe the first place he found it was in a kid friendly North American bird guide from National Geographic. Maybe we should send you 60 of our starlings. That should do the trick. 😉

  2. Sarah, I love what you do. Yours is one of few blogs that I receive in my in box and faithfully read, every time. The fact that you’re now in my home state is only further proof of your intelligence.

  3. Smart kid!
    He probably knows about English ivy and nutria here in Oregon; the rabbit plague in Australia; English sparrows–everywhere. Where man has introduced a foreign species, it’s been disaster!
    So, what did you study in zoology, Sarah?

    1. Yes, he is pretty fired up about invasive species. He got turned on to the Asian carp problem in the Illinois River when we went to Chicago this spring. He can’t wait til he’s a little older and can go bow hunting for them as they jump up in the boat wake. I have my BS in zoology and I primarily studied animal behavior and wildlife management, but never have used the degree for much.

  4. Congratulations! You are the proud director of a smarty-pants beyond- his-years kid. I had one of those. It is indeed a challenge to lead and follow them simultaneously. Funneling their interest while carefully not over-encouraging, so as to not create a Dr. Frankenstein. It’s a lot of fun along the way! (But never let them see you sweat. Smile and nod.)

    I look forward to him figuring out an answer to this environmental dilemma. Mine was going to be a world class physician, after he gave up astrophysics, but he is the next best thing — a teacher.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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