If life is for the birds, who is it against?
Hello, Starling by Tom Hoisington
The starlings had started to irritate me even before they began their aggression against me. It was spring and the males were making nests to attract females; this made them defensive. They’d team up on hawks and eagles, chasing them in behavior an ornithologist would call “mobbing.”
I’ve always loved raptors. While an undergraduate in Eugene, Ore., I used to get stoned or drop acid and walk around the Cascade Raptor Center, having long conversations with bald eagles too injured to be re-released into the wild or California condors convalescing until they could be safely reintroduced.
Seeing these glorified pigeons team up to bully such beautiful creatures pissed me off. The hawks and eagles must have been full already, or else they’d have turned around and snatched a starling out of the sky to make a quick meal of it.
The breaking point came when, after two weeks of watching this go on from the comfort of my car, I wrecked it driving home from the Westside Station Bar & Grill. The DUI that went with it, not my first, meant that I now had to walk the two miles to the bar if I wanted a drink with company, and then another quarter mile after that if I wanted to get to the liquor store for what I’d need at home.
The starlings, having sensed my contempt as I drove past them, took this opportunity to stop defending their nests from hawks and start defending them from me. As I approached the spot where they built their nests, I’d hear their screeches and call out, “I don’t care about your fucking nests! I’m walking to the bar!” Then the dive bombing would start.
I’d seen this kind of behavior before. In high school I’d run along the deserted roads surrounding my one-horse hometown as part of my weight-cutting routine for wrestling. Starlings would build nests on power poles and get aggravated when I came near. First the screeching, then the dive bombing. I was in a bad mood back then, too, although it was from the sauna suit on top of my sweats rather than from shakes and withdrawal symptoms.
After a week of walking past them, I was pretty fed up with the starlings. One day I woke up, had the vodka that was left in the house to stop my hands’ shaking, and headed to Westside Station.
The starlings were waiting for me. This time I got one who was especially persistent. He followed me for about two blocks, chirping and dive bombing. I saw people in their cars pointing and laughing as I flailed my arms to protect my face and neck.
I stewed over it while sipping drinks at Westside Station, then made my way to the liquor store. On the way home, I got mobbed again, now with only one hand free to defend myself, clutching my half gallon of vodka in the other.
I arrived home and poured myself a drink, plopped into my chair, and felt my brain relax. I thought about the beauty of the raptors and the small, self-interested pettiness of the starlings. I thought of the people in the cars making light of a man just trying to perform his tasks for the day.
I finished the drink, went into the bedroom and dug a duffel bag out of the closet. It was green and had my late uncle’s name stenciled on it. The name, along with the eagle and anchor stenciled below it, were fading. It had several smaller cloth bags inside it. I took out the smallest one, poured two drinks into my thermos, and walked back down to the poles where the starlings made their nests.
After I sat down on the bus station bench and remained motionless for a while, the starlings accepted my presence and stopped pestering me. I drank from the thermos lid as they made half-hearted passes at bicyclists.
The people passing by in their cars continued to irritate me, although they were all ignoring me now. Moms in minivans with kids. Who needs three fucking kids?
I had been angry when I walked to the bus stop, but now the waste of it all just exhausted me. I drained the rest of my drink and prepared to trudge home.
However, as I stood up, the especially aggressive starling from earlier that morning began to pester me. He circled around my head, chirping, going up and down, back and forth. Drivers and passengers again began to notice and point and laugh. My ire rose anew.
Fuck it, I thought. Enough.
I reached into the cloth bag and drew out my uncle’s old .410 shotgun. I exposed the breech and slid in two ancient shells, praying they would still work.
The starling dove again, but this time I did not flinch. I tracked him as he came in and waited for him to fly away. He seemed confused by my lack of flailing this time, and so flew away more slowly. This made him easier to track and blow out of the sky.
Which I did.
A .410 is not a large bore, but a starling is not a large bird. There wasn’t much left of him when I walked over to poke him with the barrel of the gun. He had become a lump of bone and gristle, no longer hell-bent on protecting everything so dearly his.
“Look at you now,” I said, and spat vodka-saturated saliva on his body.
I realized that motorists were still looking at me, but now with very different expressions. Some had pulled over and were filming me with their cell phones. I waved to those people.
I had two barrels, and had already loaded both. It seemed a waste to just unchamber the other. With traffic stopped anyway, I hustled across the street. On reaching the other side, I took aim at the high part of the pole where the now-dead starling had built his nest, where his mate was tending their eggs.
I fired on that, too.
The body of the mate fell, along with shards of starling egg and their gooey contents. Wood chips and shrapnel showered down from the crater I had blown in the top of the pole. I lowered my head and covered my face with my forearm, not wanting to get anything jagged in my eyes.