Birds

In a scene common around Logan last weekend, starlings flock into a residential tree.

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After a little bird-watching and a lot of people-watching this past week, I have a scientific finding to report: Many people are oblivious to the world around them.

A sizable number of Americans, including myself on most days, are so preoccupied with our personal spheres and our digital distractions that we hardly notice anything past our own noses — unless, that is, we are directly inconvenienced in some fashion. Knock out WiFi, slow down the the fast-food line, cut off cable TV or delay that Amazon package and our world is rocked. Show us video of an attempted sacking of the U.S. Capitol building by a mob led by a shirtless guy in Viking headgear, and many of us simply yawn and change the television back to Netflix or go online and look for funny memes about the incident.

Of course, I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in everyone’s mind, but this was my distinct impression after encountering a number of people in Logan following Wednesday’s insurrection at the nation’s capital. Their heads seemed to be elsewhere.

Then it occurred to me, maybe this mass tendency toward distraction isn’t such a bad thing. If everyone was hyper-focused on political affairs, freak-outs like what we saw this week by the election-conspiracy crowd could cause a domino effect quickly leading to chaos. Maybe inattention serves as a firewall against total societal collapse. We can only hope.

So what does all this have to do with bird watching?

Last Saturday and Sunday the sky over Logan was filled with birds. It was one of those rare occasions when several species fly into an area en masse. Yet few locals seemed to pay any attention to it.

When I stepped out my front door around 8 o’clock Saturday morning, it sounded like an aviary out there. I looked up into the trees in my front yard, and each one contained from 50 to 100 birds. Then I saw several groups about the same size zigzagging and swirling through the neighborhood like schools of fish in a Jacques Cousteau documentary.

Later, while driving across town to do a weekend chore, I noticed the same thing happening in other parts of Logan. However, most people on the street or in their cars seemed unfazed by the unusual sight, even when squadrons of birds swooped down very close to them. When I mentioned the oddity to friends and coworkers on Monday, nobody knew what I was talking about.

You have to think the bird invasion resulted in a lot of droppings on cars, so I suppose that got some people’s attention. Not to worry, our small metro area contains enough car washes per capita to handle all the bird droppings Mother Nature can throw at us. You won’t even have to wait in line.

USU ornithologist Kimberly Sullivan did notice the bird influx. She identified the birds she saw in her yard as starlings but didn’t doubt my report of seeing robins, finches, flickers and even a woodpecker in the mix. Sullivan said variety like this would be typical of large winter bands of birds, who rely on each other in a symbiotic relationship.

Chickadees, for example, are really vocal and give a lot of alarm calls, so other species associate with them to take advantage of this. The tagalongs can feed without having to look out constantly for predators.

Coming fresh off the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, Sullivan said it was more than likely our weekend visitors flew down from northward parts of the valley as opposed to migrating in from elsewhere in the region.

“There’s like 100,000 or so starlings out at this pig farm in Amalga. The electric lines are just drooping with them up there,” she said. “Once snow is on the ground, it covers some of their food sources, so they come into neighborhoods to feed off people’s berry bushes.”

The starlings by Amalga are a natural phenomenon even the most distracted among us would notice. I happened to drive up that way not long before Christmas (on an unrelated and ill-fated journalism mission) and got a taste of what Sullivan is talking about. I love watching them rise up in black clouds when roused by passing cars, but I doubt many people in that area think too highly of the blackish, speckled birds. Farmers consider them a nuisance because they raid feed bins, and certainly nobody likes the mess they leave behind.

Starlings have a defender, however, in another local bird expert and enthusiast I contacted last week (after the mob of birds but before the mob at the Capitol, I should point out).

“I very much want all the haters to know that starlings eat pests and their populations are stable,” Bridgerland Audubon Society President Hilary Shughart wrote in an email, saying now is a good time to talk about starlings and get out the facts. She recommends the book “Arnie the Darling Starling” for anyone wanting to learn more about the birds.

It looks like a good read — a true story about a talking starling raised by a grandmother. Maybe I’ll order it on Amazon. I could use a good distraction from the world right now. The question is whether I or anyone else can afford yet another distraction at what seems like such a critical time in the affairs of humankind.

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