July 23, 2016

Partly sunny

Starling smart

The Pet Lady

Whistles, warbles and chirps come from behind a closed door with a clear “wolf” whistle sounding as the door opened. Inside a spacious cage is not a parrot or parakeet one might expect to see, but instead are two starlings belonging to Sarah Neal.

Their relationship began three years ago at Muskingum College, where Neal majored in psychology with an emphasis on animal behavior and modification and became their caretaker when they were babies. Neal admits she always wanted to work with animals, but had no desire to work with lab rats, so instead became involved with the study of birds.
The starling is a species that can be kept without a permit.

Three adult birds were already in the bird lab program when she began, but soon nine babies arrived from a rescue in Columbus. Nests were fashioned from small dishes lined with paper towels and the nestlings had to be dropper-fed every 30 minutes from dawn to dusk.

The job was taken on by Neal and her professor, Dr. Mary Ann Engle. They named the birds after characters in the animated “Fraggle Rock” television series, but one showed resistance to being kept in a cage and was released to the wild. The remaining eight became accustomed to Neal, although she found her glasses frightened them, so she had to wear contact lenses.

Testing involved studies on social interaction, dominance issues, songs and learning behaviors. At first Neal wondered, “How smart can a bird be?” but quickly learned that starlings are very intelligent.

“They figure things out and remember what they’ve learned,” Neal said.

One test involved finding a worm in a cup covered by a specific colored napkin. All the birds were tested in roles being demonstrators and observers. Some learned the correct color on their own, while others learned by watching another bird do it.

They all have different personalities, Neal said. One bird didn’t like the color red and wouldn’t cooperate with the testing when she wore red unless she covered up with a lab coat. Another wouldn’t bathe if she watched. Only when she’d turn her head away, would he flap his wings and splash in the water.

Starlings are highly vocal and accomplished mimics, learning their whistles and sounds from what they hear. They began repeating words like “hi,” “I love you,” “thank you” and “yeah.” One even mimicked the sound of a truck backfiring from the ones he heard at the school dumpster.

They each have their own distinctive song, but all end with a high-pitched note. After spending so much time with her subjects, Neal found she was able to identify each bird by its song alone. They know their names and respond when spoken to, she said.

Through her three years at school, including summer vacations, Neal was the main caretaker of the birds. Upon graduation, she was permitted to keep two. Mokey, a favorite, had no feathers when she got him and sometimes wouldn’t cooperate in the studies, so he was one she kept.

She also chose Doozer, a starling with an injured foot, which might result in him being prone to arthritis and being picked on as he gets older. “But they’re all my babies and I had a hard time leaving them,” she said.

Doozer and Mokey now reside at her home in a large aviary. In the morning when she opens the windows, Doozer sings to the birds outside that sometimes line up on the neighbor’s roof and converse with him. They’re very social, and her mom, Janice, noticed when he sees her hanging clothes outside, he calls to her and responds when she answers him.

Bird toys and bells adorn the sides of the aviary, but Doozer also likes to grab a bandana hanging from a top bar and twist around to wrap himself up in it. They’ve figured out how to remove clips and locks on their cage, but stay nearby where they feel safe when they escape. With the door of the room safely closed they’re allowed out for socialization and exercise.

They like to be up high, and one of their favorite perching spots is a curtain rod where they can watch the world outside. They’re curious and notice anything new going on, proving it by craning their necks down in a low arch to see the neighbor who had just started his lawnmower.

Many people think of starlings as nuisance birds, until they hear of Neal s experiences with them. In spite of giving up much of her free time in the past three years to care for 11 birds, she said, “I loved the experience, and I wouldn’t change it.”

In the wild, starlings can live about eight years, but in captivity that time can double. Doozer and Mokey might not be the typical pet, but they’re entertaining companions to Neal and the visitors who come to see her unusual feathered friends.

Starling sidebar
European starlings are black birds speckled with white, with a slight iridescent color.

The first flock of 60 were brought from England and released in New York’s Central Park in 1890 by Eugene Schieffelin. His plan was to introduce all birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare to North America.

The species easily adapted, and today their estimated population is more than 200 million.

Barnosky can be reached at 330-725-4160, ext. 4075, via e-mail at petlady@roadrunner.com or by writing The Gazette, 885 W. Liberty St., Medina, 44256.