Everyone’s got something they love to hate. For some, it’s Justin Bieber. For others, it’s the New York Yankees. For birders, it’s European Starlings.
It might seem weird to hate a bird species. In fact, most beginning birders struggle with having anything but positive feelings toward the birds they find—everything feels like love at first. Each and every feathered creature is a glistening gem, and every chirp, squawk, and screech is a joyous symphony—particularly when you’re identifying them for the first time yourself. The whole world is new and each bush, branch, and pond is gazed upon with fresh eyes. You wonder how you ever lived any other way. This is a good period.
But, just like romantic relationships, the honeymoon doesn’t last forever. Things start to go south as you start putting more effort in. A rare sparrow will show up nearby, and you’ll make an effort to go see it, and you’ll drive all the way out there and wait quietly and patiently and then, there it is! It’s a sparrow, and it looks...a lot like the other sparrows you’ve seen, but, like with a different stripe on its head. Just a normal sparrow with a weird stripe. You’ll think about how hungry you are and how long the drive is home.
Instead of letting this underwhelming sensation get you down, embrace it. Let it take you over for a bit. Feel annoyed! That stupid sparrow, bringing you all the way out here in the cold!
This isn’t a sign you’re losing your love for birds, it’s a sign your relationship with them is deepening, like all relationships do with time. In romantic relationships, it’s the tough but critical period of determining long-term compatibility. In sports fandoms, it’s the difference between saying, “I don’t think we can win without another lefty in the bullpen” and “I just hope both teams have a fun time!” With birds, it’s the realization that ducks are boring just sitting out there on the pond, what you really dig are the sandpipers on the shore.
You’ll start to develop different attitudes toward different species, for no real reason. I get inordinately happy when I hear the faint chips of a flock of Black-capped Chickadees working their way through a forest, for example, and have a special thing for the plumage of the Hooded Warbler.
But it’s okay to hate certain species, too—healthy, even. I suggest you start with European Starlings.
Here’s why: There are probably more European Starlings in the United States than any other species. But there shouldn’t be any at all—they’re invasives. They were released on the streets of New York City in 1890 by a misguided faction called the American Acclimatization Society, who sought to populate the United States with familiar European species. Yes, seriously, this was an organization who just wanted to bring species they thought would be “useful” and “interesting” to Americans, despite the fact that they had no business being there. The group shipped all kinds of animals over from Europe, and their campaign of introductions was devastatingly successful, being at least partly responsible for the populations of House Sparrows, Java Finches, Brook Trout, and other non-natives that have spread across North America.
None has been more destructive to native wildlife as the European Starling. They push out native cavity nesters like bluebirds, owls, and woodpeckers. Large flocks can damage crops, and their waste can spread invasive seeds and transmit disease. They’re loud and annoying, and they’re everywhere. Farmers hate them so much that they’ve developed all manner of strategies to keep them away from farms, from special nets to covering fruit trees, to gas-operated “exploders” to scare birds away, even a poison called Starlicide.
Those types of management decisions are serious stuff, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Birding hate is fun because it’s harmless. Think of it as an extension of your growing sophistication and taste as a birder. You can try it with other birds, too. Don’t like House Sparrows, those feeder-hogging invasive city-slickers? Great. Think grebes are nothing but pond scum? That’s really weird and you should maybe give them another shot, but, hey, you do you.
So next time you see a starling, give it a sneer. It’ll feel good. It works for any species so long as you restrict your hatred to sneers and epithets, not actual physical harm. After all, this is just for fun, and even I as a lifelong Red Sox fan do not wish harm to any New York Yankee outside the diamond. Just don’t ask me about Justin Bieber.