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.
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?
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.
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.