Amy Rutherford

Ringo The Little Fool

The baby bird was lying on the sidewalk, red and ragged, with his brothers and sisters squawking in the nest fifteen feet above me. I could see the Mother bird feeding her other chicks, and she didn’t look ready to risk a visit to her fallen nestling. Passers-by were coming dangerously close to trampling the little thing. I felt the way anyone feels when encountering an injured or abandoned creature: heartbroken and inconvenienced.

I decided the best thing to do was to return the young bird to its nest. I convinced a woman to guard the bird while I asked shopkeepers for a ladder. No ladder was tall enough. Unsure of what to do next, I called the Wildlife Centre, the Humane Society, and my boyfriend. Someone would have an idea of what I should do next. I had my dog with me. He was tied to a pole, panting under the blazing sun. My boyfriend was in a meeting, no time to talk. A recorded message at the Toronto Wildlife Centre explained my options: if I’d found a Mourning Dove or any bird with white feathers they were willing to help; house sparrow, starling, out of luck, though if I wanted, I could call Animal Services and have the bird euthanized.

A few people stopped to have a look at the bird and ask what was going on, but understandably no-one wanted get tangled up in the drama. A man nearly stepped on him and when I gasped he said: “Relax lady, I see the bird.” I asked another person to stand over him while I went into a shop to find some kind of container. I gently placed him in a produce box and hailed a cab. When I got home, I learned that he was a Sturnus Vulgaris, a common starling.

gardmanadmin, “Starlings” (2012)

The days following the arrival of this wild bird in my home are a blur. I quickly had to make sure he was warm, comfortable and fed. But what do birds like this eat? How warm does he need to be? I put hot water bottles — not too hot — into his box and started to dig up worms from the yard. I read up on starlings. I knew I wasn’t the first person to rescue a fallen nestling. Is he dehydrated? Yes, but don’t drop water directly into his mouth, he may get pneumonia. Feed him every twenty minutes. Every twenty minutes? That’s a lot. No earthworms, they may have parasites. Buy avian vitamins. Mix cat food, egg and apple sauce. He’s not eating the food. I don’t want to jam it down his throat. I don’t think he’s warm enough. He’s slipping on the bottom of the box, what if he gets “straddle leg?” I felt like a new mother. And my baby needed a name. Ringo.

msamyandamy, “Feeding A Baby Starling Named Ringo” (2012)

At the pet store, cashiers were eager to tell me that the bird was now “tainted with my scent,” and would never survive. This, I have since learned is untrue; birds have a poor sense of smell. Perhaps this is a received idea to make the task of killing abandoned birds easier. The most humane way of doing the deed, said one blogger, is a plastic bag and tailpipe exhaust. Another suggested drowning. But I just kept thinking: “I can’t do it! This is a perfect little bird!”

Not everybody shares this sentiment of course. All sorts of people loathe starlings, for their ugliness, for the noise they make, and for the way they destroy fruit and vegetable crops. When I went to the Home Depot to buy the materials to make a bird house, I told an employee that I was building it for a starling. “Why?” he moaned, “They’re pests. The Nazis of the bird world.”

“Not my Ringo!” I thought. He was just doing his best to survive, he was very cute and friendly, he was terrorizing no-one. And anyway, starling populations have been falling every year in North America for a decade, and they’re down 50 percent in Europe compared to 1980. They may soon be classified as endangered!  They’re hardly taking over, Home Depot man. And if this hardy and resilient species of birds is dying off, what does it say about the mounting threat to other species? To us?

Of course, anything considered a pest is disposable. As with mice, so with starlings, at least for this sadistic hobbyist — “Boom. Right to the neck.” He’s not alone.

Ted’s Holdovre, “Starling Behaviour — Why I Shoot Them” (2011)

EdgunUSA elevates his starling hunting to the level of benevolent and glorious mission. Starlings are foreign interlopers, low on the bird hierarchy, and all too ready to bully the more delicate native birds. “Their aggressiveness is unmatched by native birds,” he says, and so he intervenes to “level the playing field.” What a hero!

I don’t know if starlings are wreaking havoc in North America’s sky ways. However, I have read that since their arrival on this side of the Atlantic in the late nineteenth century, their population has reached 200 million. An American drug manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin, member of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society and the New York Zoological Society, brought over 200 starlings, as part of a plan to import every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. In “Henry IV,” Hotspur suggests teaching a starling to repeat the name of a distrusted earl “Mortimer” to disrupt the king’s sleep. Starlings are expert mimickers, better than parrots. In fact, every starling has two voice boxes, so they can even harmonize with themselves.

deniseyf, “My Pet Starling Talking: Spike” (2007)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is known to have bought a starling as a pet. In his diary of expenses, he notes the date of purchase and the price — “27.May 1784 Vogel Stahrl 34 Kr” — as well as a transcription of the melody the starling was whistling. Next to the musical notes, he adds words of praise: “Das war schön!” Mozart thought it was so beautiful he modeled the last movement of his piano concerto No. 17 in G major, K.453 on the starling’s melody. In turn, the starling mimicked Mozart’s musical line, but in its own characteristic way, whistling the ninth and tenth notes in G-sharp rather than in G — much to Mozart’s amusement.

In 1787, Mozart held a ceremonious burial in his garden for his beloved starling. Veiled mourners sang hymns and Mozart administered last rites. He also read a poem composed specifically for the occasion.

A little fool lies here
Whom I held dear—
A starling in the prime
Of his brief time
Whose doom it was to drain
Death’s bitter pain.
Thinking of this, my heart
Is riven apart.
Oh reader! Shed a tear,
You also, here.
He was not naughty, quite,
But gay and bright,
And under all his brag
A foolish wag.
This no one can gainsay
And I will lay
That he is now on high,
And from the sky,
Praises me without pay
In his friendly way.
Yet unaware that death
Has choked his breath,
And thoughtless of the one
Whose rime is thus well done.

Jabber, “Jabber the Starling’s Stunning Skills” (2009)

One day I discovered Ringo had learned how to stand. A few days later he had all of his feathers and he was preening. I opened his cage and he hopped toward me for his food. Soon he was flying around my office. I quickly emptied out my belongings. I opened the window (screen on of course) so he could learn his song from other starlings in the neighbourhood. I watched him sharpen his beak and dig for worms in the dirt I’d spread on the table and floor. I heard him chatting with another starling in the tree outside. I noticed that he went quiet as soon as the sun went down. I was so proud! The next morning, he took his first bird bath in one of my dinner plates.

msamyandamy, “Ringo The Starling Bathing” (2012)

Ringo stayed for four weeks. I resisted as best I could my growing attachment to him. At sunrise, I would wake up to give him a little snack and he’d quieten down. I’d go in after breakfast for bath time and worms, and in the late afternoon he would fly about the room. He was gentle and playful, his feathers were soft and he was fattening up nicely. I did build him a house, out of cedar, but he never used it. I kept my dog out of sight, and sometimes I sat outside his room and played YouTube videos of other starlings singing, like this one.

SunCatRune, “Starling Singing” (2012)

I worried about releasing him. Would he be too tame? Easy prey for a cat. What if he couldn’t find food? What if fellow starlings rejected him? What if his starling song is incomprehensible to other starlings? He had started to land on my head and wrist, he’d crawl up my back and use me as a jungle gym. I would discourage him. I wanted to keep my distance, be sure he didn’t get “imprinted,” even if I couldn’t help feel a tinge of pride and purpose when I saw how happily he’d squawk when I came into the room.

I began to imagine how it would be if I kept him as a pet. I could build a giant aviary and he could come and go as he pleased. I could teach him words. He would become part of our family. But if I did that he would never experience this.

raisingmaggie, “Amazing Starlings Murmuration” (2010)

So the day finally came. I’d waited for the weather to clear. I went into his room and encouraged him to perch on my wrist and then walked him downstairs, into the kitchen and towards the garden. My boyfriend followed, filming with his iPhone. As I reached the threshold of the back door, he flew away. I caught a glimpse of him high in the sky. It was a sudden, irreversible parting.

msamyandamy, “Ringo Starling Release” (2012)

I reclaimed the room that had been Ringo’s stomping ground. I cleaned up the soil and worms, the branches, the poop. I moved my office things back in. Sweeping up, I found three of his small feathers. They still smelled like him.

Birds are said to have a sixth sense, an almost supernatural sense of direction. I wondered if he had reunited with his siblings. Some mornings, at around 6 a.m. (that used to be our first feeding time) I hear a familiar squawking outside my bedroom window.

I miss that little fool.

– Amy Rutherford

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Amy Rutherford is an actor and writer. She won the 2019 Carol Bolt Award for her play, "Mortified." She is a graduate of The National Theatre School of Canada and the Stratford Conservatory, and her stage performances have earned her several Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations. Credits include Hannah Moscovitch’s "The Children’s Republic" (Tarragon Theatre), Michael Ondaatje’s "Divisadero" (Necessary Angel), Tadeusz Slobodzianek's "Our Class" (Studio 180), and "Streetcar Named Desire" (Soulpepper), where she played Blanche DuBois. She's also known to do a mean Rosalind.