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A Starling's Disarming Charm

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A Starling's Disarming Charm

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A Starling's Disarming Charm

A Starling's Disarming Charm

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Commentator Julie Zickefoose, who raises orphaned wild birds, has mixed feelings about starlings, the portly black birds with squeaky songs and messy nests. But one bird managed to charm her with its mimicry — temporarily — one spring.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Commentator Julie Zickefoose takes care of orphaned birds. She has state and federal permits to do that. So people come to her house usually carrying a shoe box with holes punched in it and inside a bird, an injured bird or a lost baby bird. Zickefoose does what she can to raise them and return them to the wild.

One spring, someone dropped off a baby starling named Einstein.

JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: When you hand-raise wild birds, you can't just open the window and tell them goodbye. You've got to train them to come back to you for food until they are truly independent. This wasn't difficult to do since Einstein rode on my shoulder for much of the day like a scruffy parrot. He made noises that sounded an awful lot like human speech. A hidden talent starling possessed.

Einstein made me laugh. The day I released him, he appeared on my living-room window sill with a nickel in his bill and he tapped it on the outside of the window. I went out with some food for him, and he dropped the nickel in my hand. As much fun as Einstein was, I haven't raised any starlings since then.

Here's why, starlings try to nest every year in a bird house that we put up for native birds, ones like flickers, kestrels and purple martins. Starlings are not native birds. They were introduced from Europe in 1890 and have out-competed the birds that belong here for nesting sites. Let's face it, Ohio doesn't need any more starlings.

So every year, I pull out the starling's messy nests time and time again. One spring, I got lazy, and a pair got so far as to lay a clutch of pale blue eggs in the flicker house.

Now, throwing nesting material out of a bird house is one thing, but throwing starling eggs out is tough. There's life in each little capsule and it bothers me. Still, I told myself, I'd do it, right after I finish the laundry.

I pinned the clothes upon the line, enjoying the fresh breeze in a rare, warm, early spring sunshine. A starling sang from a telephone wire overhead, whistling and barking, grunting and wheezing the way starlings do. I loved listening to him. It was peaceful out there, just me, the clothesline and the starling.

My young son Liam had just gone down for a rare afternoon nap and I knew I had a couple of hours to myself. His open bedroom window was right over head, suddenly, Liam's sweet voice rang out, Mommy? Mommy? No, he couldn't be awake. In the next instant, I realized that my little boy's voice had come not from his window to my left, but from the bird on the phone wire to my right.

The starling continued his litany, oblivious to his dumbfounded audience. When I'd regained my composure, I called softly to the starling. Mommy, he paused, then answered, Mom, mom, in Liam's voice again. The talking starling and his mate raised five sooty nestlings in our flicker box. When they finally left the nest, I took the box down.

I liked that starling but we don't need any more of them around here. Another starling comes around every spring, singing hopefully around the place, but he's going to have to come up with something else to amaze me if he's to get back in my flicker nest box. I keep glancing at the eaves, expecting a dew-spangled spiderweb that reads "terrific" or "radiant," or "some starling" to appear. Some people say the animals talk at midnight on Christmas Eve, I don't know about that. Here, it happened about noon on a sunny spring day.

SIEGEL: Commentator Julie Zickefoose likes birds of all sorts, although some more than others. She's the author of "Letters From Eden."

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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