is safe for cats, owls, and creeks; for Laundromats, pedigrees,
and flutes; for windbags, soothsayers, and windshield wipers,
but not for crows or blackbirds, nor of course, for starlings,
who are aggressive, super-smart, and clever, who can nest
anywhere and sing Mozart’s allegrettos, whose plasticity
of behavior causes millions in damage to farms;
whose strengths annoy, whose strengths too closely shadow
those of European-Americans: also invasive, also bullying out
native populations; also in turns abrasive and charming,
so it makes sense some white scientists invented Starlicide
to starve the mirror of its brute mimicry,
with assurances that Starlicide won’t enter the food chain
because it’s metabolized so fast you could say it flies
through starlings (and crows and blackbirds), plummeting
them to earth, upsetting all sorts of humans who once thought
bird crap on their cars nuisance enough. We’re assured
Starlicide has no known side effects aside from bird downpours
which, though problematic, won’t undercut the minimized
screeching and excrement, fewer flocks ravaging grain stores
and throwing themselves against sunset like intricate nets—
a habit particular to starlings but not crows and blackbirds
who pal around in smaller groups and thus can travel
together without swirling, which is impossible for starlings:
one wrong turn and they’ll break each other’s wings
and in that they’re like us too. Whenever a new batch
of Starlicide drops, crows and blackbirds whistle darkly
to their nestlings, warning them about humans,
even the girl who leaves seeds on a pedestal for a crow
who thanks her with broken key chains, glass shards, and tweezers;
wire and ribbon; bottle caps and dimes as if aware
of capitalism—an hypothesis scientists hope to prove
because while animals shouldn’t be too much like us,
it’d be convenient if they understood give and take,
the cost of doing business, if they could see our economy
as we often do, propped like a carefully wrought nest
at the top of a tall tree, removed from the dust
and squalor below, so that it’s easy to forget it matters
what happens to the roots, that leaf and branch,
sun and soil, heart and feather, flesh and sound
all fly or die together: which the birds know.
They have wings and feet, eyes and brains, and this
worries some scientists, who have learned crows
cling to grudges and dive-bomb humans
who do them or their loved ones wrong, then teach
these grudges to each other, just like we do.
A falconer was hired after the last Starlicide panic,
after the sky again spewed dead birds like a foul omen,
spurring some outliers to suggest we please try something else.
The local news is thrilled, smitten—a lady falconer!—
asking if she would please don a cape and long dress
for this outing. She wears her jeans and flannel and says no
comment before taking her bird below the roosting starlings
whose splintered chants seem to goad the falcon on—
as if they know fear is better than Starlicide, that poison
always ends up in the king’s chalice, their fragmented
symphony a prettier ‘fuck you’ than we deserve.
Note: Starlicide is a pesticide or chemical avicide that is highly toxic to starlings, crows, pigeons, and certain gull species. It is used at feedlots, farms, wildlife refuges, and other sites. Some of the language in “Starlicide,” particularly in stanzas two and three, is borrowed from NPR’s interview with Lyanda Lynn Haupt, about her book Mozart’s Starling, in which she details Mozart’s relationship with his pet starling, Vogesltar.
Featured image: Studland starlings. Photo by Tanya Hart, 2017.
Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University. Contact. Website.
Nice accessible poem with important message about unanticipated and unexpected consequences. I know farmers dislike starlings for good reasons, but who can’t marvel at their murmurations, usually with an accompanying falcon looking for access?