Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

Metallic Starlings

Judging from the alacrity with which metallic starlings begin building their nests on their advent in August of each year, and the earnestness of family duties during their sojourn of seven months, it is conceivable that but for the positive check of the wet season they might maintain the vigorous fulfilment of these duties the year round. Early and persistent rain sends them off with evident reluctance. When a preliminary downpour has rendered the nests uninhabitable, a fine interval has so far deluded them that they have started to demolish and rebuild, only to be driven away by the recurrence of inclement weather. Governed by its incidence, they seem to detest the rain.

With rare exceptions, the starlings come to this island during the first ten days of August. Seldom do they shriek and glitter in forest and jungle after 20th March. In a typical year they appeared on 5th August, whereas at a locality on the mainland, only seven miles away, they were noticed a fortnight earlier. A colony which had established itself, time out of mind, on a slim Moreton Bay ash-tree (EUCALYPTUS TESSELLARIS) in the heart of the forest, hatched out three, if not four, distinct broods during the season, which lasted until 30th March following. Originally the colony was sixty nests strong, and the first brood was hatched out within twenty-six days, evidence of the fact being given by portions of stained egg-shells on the ground beneath. In six weeks the number had been increased by thirty. The second hatching took place early in December; the third about the middle of January; and there are indications of a fourth late in February. Rain during January and February was not sufficient to annoy or embarrass the birds.

On 30th December three nests were found beneath the overladen tree. In each were three slightly incubated eggs. Each nest was carpeted with fragments of fresh green leaves of Moreton Bay ash, torn and nibbled at the edges. What office do the green leaves perform? Possibly the pungency, agreeable to the human sense of smell, may be obnoxious to the insects which fidget adults and chicks — in which case the adults may wittingly provide, and, in a degree, macerate, the leaves for the annoyance of the lice.

On 4th February the colony numbered 125 nests, and on that date two more overweighted branches came down. In several of the nests were fledgelings, all save two of which were killed by the fall or were worried to death by green ants. One of the survivors died shortly after discovery of the disaster. The other — an independent, self-assertive, ill-mannered imp — lived in and about the house for a couple of months.

The adult metallic starling is remarkable for the colour and lustre of its eyes, which are ruby-red and glitter gem-like. The eyes of the castaway were deep brown in infancy. Not until a month after it had become the most noisy, impatient, and impertinent member of the household did the eyes begin to change; nor was the reddish tint primarily permanent. In quiet moods the eyes were washy-red. Excitement and anger deeply tinged them. In fact, the tints of the iris varied with almost every pulsation, the emotions of the excitable sprite being expressed in more or less richness of red.

At the age of six weeks it was estimated that this small orphan bird, in the care of interested mortals, consumed daily food sufficient for a human infant. Its menu included oatmeal porridge and milk, rice, mango, papaw, bread, cake, large white grubs, caterpillars, mosquitoes bloated with human blood, March and other flies, grasshoppers and samples of every other edible unprotected from its raids. It would feast on the scrag end of a neck of a decapitated fowl with as much apparent relish as on the skin of a mango!

Having early in life acquired a taste for milk, it declined to spoil its thirst with water; since, moreover, it was free and was alert, quick and questioning, it made itself understood, and generally got that which it wanted at the moment, if not with goodwill then by force, persistency, or fraud. It took baths regularly, being especially fond of the “blue” tub of the laundry, on the edge of which it would perch, to duck and sprawl therein; and there it would stand to be well soused, screaming with glee.

Young birds from the same colony were wont to visit chilli bushes in the garden, but with them the pet did not, for several weeks, make friends. It soon learned to take chillies, though the first knowledge of that diverting fruit was disastrous. Instead of being swallowed whole, it was broken up and deliberately tasted, and with a shriek of dismay and flooded eyes, sparkling like embers, it flew to the kitchen, imploring the consolation of milk. Ever after, chillies were bolted.

Occasionally the orphan would camp on a mango-tree; but its accustomed bed was in a small basket under cover, the lid of which was kept open to the extent of half an inch by a chip of wood at one corner. At dusk the bird would dash across the kitchen, to disappear beneath the lid like a jack-in-the-box, and if, an instant later, the lid was lifted, the intruder would be warned off with an admonitory hiss.

In no sense affectionate or lovable, its departure was at least consistent with its character. From a convenient mango-tree it darted on to the edge of a dish being borne to the fowl-yard, tasted of its quality, and danced on to the shoulder of its mistress, just as a flock of its own race dashed past. With a shriek it followed — never to return.

The history of the little bird was instructive, affording information as to the variety and quantity of food it consumed. Perpetual hunger was a marked condition, and the digestive processes, being very imperfect, demonstrated the value of such an agent in the distribution of seeds. Millions of seeds with unaffected germination must be transported hither and thither by various colonies of starlings every season, to the advantage of the vegetable kingdom.

A contributor to an English review is inclined to wonder whether the starlings of the Old Country “do not possess some strange occult sense of organization which in the long process of evolution may carry them higher and higher in the scale of creation.” That Australia’s native starlings do benefit by the laws of community there can be little doubt; but their socialistic habits appear to invite the raids of snakes and hawks. It is not uncommon to find a grey goshawk in possession of the tree in which a colony is established, and all the adult birds crowded on another close by, whence they timidly watch the enemy. The hawk does not appear to have wit enough to raid the domed nests; but it awaits a chance of dashing among the alert birds that have exercised themselves in manoeuvres of evasion.

Late each season the flocks assemble for the performance of these tactics, in which they act as though the separate entities had but a single brain. Not only in times of peace, but in the presence of a baffled and exasperated enemy, they cleave the air in acute angles with almost instantaneous changes of direction, shrieking in unison.

The assurance with which snakes raid the nests was illustrated a few years ago, when notes were being taken of the habits of the birds. Goshawks had harried the colony so frequently that visits were made at intervals with the gun, and on one occasion, while I was waiting for a shot, a big black snake shuffled slowly towards the trunk of the tree. By its demeanour its very thoughts might have been read. Cruel, crafty, arrogant, it seemed to assert its dominion over other beasts of the field and the fowl of the air; nor did it turn aside though passing within a foot of the watcher. It wriggled its own length up the smooth trunk — and fell back headless on the report of the gun.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32