Starlings, Infinity, and the Kith of Kinship | Lyanda Fern Lynn Haupt
Often regarded as a pest, the starling is a type of bird with a glossy black plumage that shines green or purple due to its metallic sheen. The speckles of iridescent, pearl-white spots that adorn their breast earn them the celestial title “Starling” (meaning “Little Star”). The starling’s impressive ability to mimic the sounds of life as it unfolds around them speaks to the way that song illuminates their practice of sharing in the web of life.
In this excerpt from the brand new book, Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations, Lyanda Fern Lynn Haupt reflects on the beyond-human kinship her relationship with starlings has illuminated, and the infinity of intelligences cradled by reciprocity in a world that both includes yet surpasses the limits of human knowledge.
The following excerpt is from “Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations” (Center for Humans and Nature, 2021) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
A starling lives in my house. I prefer to think of the circumstance under which she came into my care as a heroic rescue, but to be perfectly honest, it was part theft. I was working on a book about kinship and creativity, explored through the window of Mozart’s relationship with a starling he kept for four years. In my research for the project, I’d scoured the academic literature on starlings, interviewed myriad experts, and traveled to Austria, where I haunted the Vienna apartment in which Mozart had lived and composed alongside the bird. But the longer I pondered and scribbled, the more I came to recognize a gap in my understanding of the human-bird relationship central to my project—I didn’t know, as Mozart did, what it was like to coexist with a starling in my own household.
Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (and according to common ecological sense) it is entirely illegal to remove, harass, touch, or even glance sideways at the nests, eggs, or nestlings of nearly any bird. Starlings are one of the few exceptions. The twenty-some starlings that were introduced to Central Park in the late 1800s have swelled in number to two hundred million and now blanket North America, flourishing on farmland, in suburban lawns, and in urban parks. They are omnivorous, adaptive, and smart. While most of the general public cannot accurately identify starlings, we do know one thing: we aren’t supposed to like them. In ornithological and conservation circles, starlings are beyond question the most despised bird on the continent, competing with native cavity nesters such as acorn woodpeckers and bluebirds for prized nest holes. They cause millions of dollars in agricultural damage each year, their great flocks descending to feast upon fields and animal feed. With this track record, the starling is considered not just an introduced species but an invasive one; fish and wildlife departments across the country enjoin us to discourage starlings from nesting, cover their nest holes, destroy their nests, remove their eggs, and even kill both chicks and adult birds in any way we can think up.
One day a friend in the city parks department familiar with my project called to let me know that a starling nest in the eaves of a nearby park bathroom was going to be removed by park workers. I’d been studying that nest and knew that the young had just hatched—here was my chance. It was a harrowing caper, but with my husband as coconspirator, some ill-conceived climbing upon wobbly park-owned garbage cans, a share of bloody scrapes and ugly bruises, and a shocking amount of foul language, I managed to swoop in and scoop up a nestling before she was swept into the city trash bin. I was aware that while we are allowed to maim or murder starlings with legal impunity, it is decidedly not legal to lovingly nurture one in our living rooms. I have a background in avian rehab and knew what I was doing in terms of raising a chick. Still—I was about to become a minor criminal. We can kill starlings, but we can’t keep them. Rescue. Theft.
We named the bird for the Latin word meaning song, and Carmen joined our family—her flock—with warm and trusting enthusiasm, wanting always to be with us, on us, inquisitive about our doings, a participant in the round of our homelife. Shining, mischievous, playful, singing—flapping now from my shoulder to my wrist as I write these words.
I had a preconceived notion of what I would learn from this personal bit of starling research. Starlings are curious, intelligent, iridescent, beautiful; they have a complex social structure and are capable mimics. And so I guessed: Carmen would join me in my studio and get into so much trouble that I would marvel at Mozart’s having ever gotten any work done at all. She would charm my family by mimicking our voices. She would invite me and those who met her to explore the cognitive dissonance involved in being conservationists who are enchanted by this individual of an ecologically disdained species.
And yes. Yes, she affirmed all those things with panache. Then, having dispatched my expectations, she went entirely off script, ignored my research needs, took over the story, improvised new hypotheses, composed her own results. She taught me things about the measure of my human complexity, and even more about the expanse of my ignorance. I have been thinking and writing about beyond-human kinship for more than two decades. Now a common, invasive bird perched lightly upon my shoulder and sang into my ear, You know nothing. Winging into the great cloud of my unknowing, this one starling has taught me ten thousand things. Here are two of them.
The Infinity of Intelligences
Because of starlings’ detested status, most people are uninterested in their astonishing natural history, and even those who identify as birders have little idea that starlings are gifted mimics, able to imitate novel sounds and build a repertoire of new learned vocalizations throughout their lives. Starlings skillfully imitate other birds, cats, environmental noises, various kinds of machinery, cell phones, music, and the human voice. Rather than attempting to teach Carmen specific words, I wanted to see how her mimicry would unfold within our household, unprompted. Starlings are flirtatious, social beings, and they respond to interaction, so it was fitting that Carmen’s first word was hi, followed swiftly by hi Carmen, hi Honey, and c’mere, the phrases we most often speak to her. Eventually, she mimicked the creak in our old wood floor and practiced the song of the Bewick’s wren nesting outside her window until I couldn’t tell the two birds apart. All of this was a delight—but unsurprising for a starling. Both male and female starlings sing (uncommon in female passerines) and mimic. But it took me months after she came into her full voice to figure out the most wonderous dimension to Carmen’s aural echoes—that they are in truth not echoes at all.
In the dark of morning, before anyone else in the house is awake, I pad downstairs in my pink sock-monkey pajamas. As soon as I reach the bottom step, Carmen calls in a soft, whispery voice, Hi Carmen. The first words she hears each day. Our elder tuxedo cat Delilah follows me, ready for her breakfast—Carmen looks at her and says, Meeooow! in a demanding, hungry-kitty voice. I pick up the jar of coffee and, hearing the tinkling of the beans, Carmen calls ker-klunk, the sound of the jar lid hitting the countertop, then a gritty whiiiir!—not her prettiest vocalization, but an exact imitation of the coffee grinder, the sound she knows is next to come. And when I open the door of the microwave but before I press the buttons, Beep! Beep-beep. In rhythm and pitch perfect.
For so long I simply thought, “Wow, Carmen’s mimicry is getting really good.” But the moment I comprehended what was actually happening, a shiver ran from my scalp to my toes. Carmen does not just imitate the sounds of her world; she anticipates them, and she participates in the world by proclaiming the order of life with her voice. The more I watched, listened, and witnessed, the more it became clear that this radical aural attunement and readiness is her primary way of knowing, of learning, of communicating, and—especially, as a social bird—of sharing in the unfolding life that surrounds her.
Just as all dog owners like to think they have the smartest pup in the world, for a brief moment, I marveled that I was living with the most intelligent starling ever to rise from the stuff of creation—right here in my kitchen. It dawned eventually on my slow human brain that it is not just this brilliant little starling but all starlings who have such astonishing aural responsiveness to life and everything that passes within it. I threw binoculars around my neck and ran into the world. I studied wild starlings for weeks and observed this auditory alertness in the individuals everywhere around me.
Starlings are one of the most ubiquitous, most widely researched birds on Earth (in the United States, they are common lab subjects because they are unprotected, requiring no special license for collection), yet they are busy learning and expressing right beneath our noses in a manner that few recognize. The scientific literature on starlings is full of analyses regarding their vocal intelligence and the complexity of their syntax. But their anticipatory aural perception of the world is not represented in the oeuvre, which explores animal intelligence mainly by the extent to which it approximates human intelligence. Sure, we humans can hear a sound and predict what will follow. But starlings dwell in the living aural landscape as a fundamental way of being, alert in a manner beyond human capacity. And this is just one animal with one way of being, a way that I just happened to become aware of while living in uncommon intimacy with a single wild bird.
The starling’s gifts are singular—as are those of all beings. Turkey vultures vocalize little, no match for a starling, but their brains house the largest olfactory sense of any bird, drawing them to freshly dead food through fragrances that rise from earth to air. My own sense of smell is trifling next to a vulture’s. How must it be to live guided by fragrance and flight? What manner of intelligence forms within a life framed and molded by these things? Or the whisker-based seeing of night rodents? Or the skin-based knowing of an earthworm? Or the beyond-human echo hearing of bats? Or the rooted mycorrhizal communication of red cedars? Or the geometrical pattern recognition of bees in the flowers they see and the visual wavelengths we are blind to but that guide bee lives?
Media-driven lists of animals considered the most intelligent are most often populated by the same creatures over and over: other-than-human primates of various sorts, elephants, dolphins, border collies, crows, ravens, and parrots. The list of traits that indicate intelligence commonly include facial recognition, spatial memory, response to music, mimicry of the sounds of other animals (especially the human voice), tool use, problem solving, and grieving. These animals have eyes, most often they have fur, they live in social groups, and they do things that humans do. (The octopus, neither feathered nor furred, or even vertebrate, is trending as an outlier.) It is a positive that in recent years academic science is beginning to admit animal consciousness as a valid topic for discussion, yet both in our science and our everyday lives we continue to diminish the soaring uniqueness of other species and individuals by discussing animal intelligences only insofar as we perceive in them humanlike ways of knowing and feeling. As with the wild aural attentiveness of starlings, we who grew up with a conventional Western education constantly fail to recognize, or even imagine, the breadth of unique animal and plant intelligences that lie outside of human manners of being.
With gratitude to Carmen, I start each day with a reminder that we walk, wondering, within an infinity of living intelligences, cradled by the reciprocity of kinship in an inspirited world that simultaneously surpasses and enfolds the limits of human knowing. We walk as if in a faerie story—every being we pass, no matter how common, possessed of both message and mystery.
The Kith of Kinship
The genesis of the common name for starling—which means “little star”—is uncertain. It may have been inspired by the shape the birds’ bodies form in flight, reaching in four directions—bills, wingtips, tails tapering to the point that distinguishes them from flying blackbirds. Or perhaps the celestial scattering of iridescent, pearl-white star spots that adorn their breasts in most seasons. In either case, the name starling is a call from the cosmos to the earth, an embodied reminder of kinship’s essence. Together we are made of the fine things: soil, blood, the sustenance of earth, and ether. Starstuff.
Carmen roosts on my shoulder, quiet. Breast settled over toes, plumes soft against my neck, a slight fluff of wings lifted by tiny scapulae formed within a vertebral bauplan evolved millennia before there were any primates at all, let alone anyone in the genus Homo walking the earth. Can I hear her heartbeat there so close to my ear? No, but I imagine that I can. Yet I do feel a tingle on my own scapulae, as if I may sprout feathered wings of my own.
We feel this entrainment with other beings when we allow ourselves to enter into it—leaning with bare feet against the trunk of an ancient cedar, our craniosacral fluid rising and falling with the sap. The recognition of bright lightness in our own feet when the doe leaps back into her forest shelter. The alertness in the eyes of a cottontail that makes us turn to look over our own shoulders for, maybe, an even larger predator than the rabbit perceives in us. Deep kinship invites these moments of prerational interbeing with another creature, of everyday shapeshifting.
Yet this wondrous interrelatedness leaves us faltering in the face of many species’ disruptive presence to ecosystemic integrity, including the starling’s impact on sensitive native bird populations. In 1957, Rachel Carson wrote a paper titled “How about Citizenship Papers for the Starling.” In it she praised the species’ playfulness, watchability, and the fact that one of their favorite foods is cutworms—a menace to agriculturalists and gardeners. She was right, too, in noting that starlings in North America aren’t going anywhere. Despite the arsenal of tactics deployed to reduce starling populations (guns, traps, explosives, and species-specific poisons actually called starlicides), starling populations continued to grow for decades after Carson’s paper and stabilized at their current level about thirty years ago. It is a surprise for eco-minded people to hear a voice such as Carson’s speak in favor of starlings, but in 1957 there were only twenty million starlings, a tenth of today’s population. Plus, Carson, who had a love for all creatures and was fascinated by starling behavior, would have run up against the same problem we face today. In the calculus of kinship, the starling is our relation. As humans interested in acting on behalf of a wild earth with beautiful ecosystems that maintain a semblance of integrity, we face a dilemma. Starlings belong with us in kindred continuity, but what about in presence upon the landscape? How do we balance these questions in mind, body, and heart?
Here, the little-understood word kith that evolved alongside kinship sheds light. In modern English—even in England where the expression “kith and kin” originated—the two words are mistakenly conflated into one meaning: our relatives, those who are close to us. But the reason the archaic phrase was formed around two different words is that they are in fact different. Jay Griffiths points this out in her radiant book, Kith (changed to A Country Called Childhood for an American audience who is not trusted to know the word kith at all). The etymology of the word kith is murky, most likely related to the Old English cūth, whence the obsolete couth. We are familiar today with uncouth—a lack of knowing, an ignorance of how to act or behave. Couth, and eventually kith, by contrast, is the known, the familiar. It makes sense that the conviviality of kith came to be associated with the relatedness of kin and, as the etymologist Eric Partridge writes, “hence, by confusion, relatives.”
Where kin are relations of kind, kith is relationship based on knowledge of place—the close landscape, “one’s square mile,” as Griffiths writes, where each tree and neighbor and crow and fox and stone are known, not by map or guide but by heart. Kithship, then, is intimacy with the landscape in which one dwells and is entangled, a knowing of its waymarks, its fragrance, the habits of its wildlings.
Kinship speaks to the truth of an interrelatedness that is shared no matter how deeply we as individuals perceive this connection. (We experience this with our human blood relatives; the substance of our genetic lineage remains whether or not we know our relatives well, like them, or have any sense of what they do day to day.) And although it might be more beautiful to dwell in awareness of our kinship with all of life and to act from that center, such awareness is not required for the fact of our kinship to remain as an ecological given.
Kithship is different. It is an exacting intimacy, one born of nearness, stillness, study, observation, openness. Vulnerability. Kithship is hard-won visceral intimacy—blood cut of the thorn, bright stinging of the nettle. Knowledge of the rock where the snake suns herself and the best path around it.
Kithship is particular. Among the several things that the ecologist Suzanne Simard suggests we human animals can do to assist trees in their lives and forest making is to simply go and be among them. Simard grew up in a logging family and found her early inspiration as a child in British Columbia, when she would lie “on the forest floor and stare up at the tree crowns” of the ancient Douglas firs and western red cedars. It is only by dwelling over time with a particular forest that we can understand its uniqueness, what it needs to flourish and to thrive—and it is how, in our graced interconnection, we ourselves flourish and thrive in response. The place-based particularity of kithship explains why starlings are beloved in the United Kingdom and across Europe, where they are native. With the loss of agricultural land, their numbers are falling, and they are officially listed as a species of concern. Birders and even many academic ornithologists in the United States are stunned by this news—unable to imagine a world in which starlings are welcome. When I spoke about this subject to audiences in Austria, people were astonished to learn that the species is so despised here.
The endangered orcas in the southern waters of Scotland are my beloved kindred to be sure. I know this even though I will likely never see them. But the Salish Sea orcas who roam the home waterways we share? I know them as individuals by the scars visible on their dorsal fins. I have seen their young breach the surface of waters I paddle in my kayak. I have watched the fountain of their exhale, the echo of their breath singing all the way to shore. I have walked home after such moments in wonder, wanting never to bathe again but to live always in a skin of orca breath.
Kithship crosses dimensions of knowing that bring us to intimate specificity: book learning, alert wandering, knowledge of species close to home and recognition of individuals within these species, knowing who lives where and why, knowing who is flourishing and who is failing. Kithship enlivens and complexifies kinship, and it is essential if the fullness of kinship’s wisdom is to be lived.
And the question of starling presence upon the landscape? What we should think, how we should relate, what we should do? Ah. I don’t know. Of course, I do not know. There is no one answer, no single right response. Dwelling with kith and kin awakens, always, an unsettled complexity. With our intricate human-animal minds, we can hold many dimensions of thought at once, and such complexity is not the same as contradiction. We are asked to walk lightly and intelligently within an essential ambiguity.
In kinship, Carmen and her own kindred starlings with their ravishing intelligence are my relations—sister, mother, beloved. In kithship, I pause. I observe the flicker who was evicted from her nest on the corner by a starling, recognizable by her habit of roosting on a particular cherry branch, near the tree’s trunk. I wander the woodland edges near my home where starlings do not nest and witness the uptick in native avian biodiversity there. I behold the starlings who swirl from their exquisite murmuration out of the sky and into our backyard fir. I watch Carmen when they begin to whistle; she falls silent, tilting her head. I wish starlings were not present upon this landscape. I know that killing them will not help and is unjustified. I know, too, that I cannot accept their presence with a full heart. We stand in a glorious, tangled dissonance filled with love, intimacy, and confusion. I cover the holes in my home where starlings might nest. I plant trees. And when I see a starling? I stand in awe of her loveliness and whisper, “Hello, shining one.”