A walk up the ridge to the mailbox often brings unexpected surprises. Several European starling pairs have taken over the nesting spots in the hollow oak branches formerly used by the acorn woodpeckers. Their nesting is in full swing, accompanied by the amazing repertoire of sounds and calls they make, many imitating other birds.
The starlings first appeared on my ridge, south of Yosemite, about seven years ago, although they are not strangers to the area. Starlings first appeared in Yosemite Valley on April 27, 1966 (Gaines, Birds of Yosemite, 1992), almost eighty years after their introduction in New York in 1890. There are fewer oaks on our ridge now, due to new homes, the death of old oaks, and the cutting of young oaks. There are also fewer acorn woodpeckers and bluebirds–but more starlings.
The first week of April, I walked to the mail box, enjoying the clear blue skies and warm breeze. Scrub jays and spotted towhees flitted through the brush, finches called from the trees, bushtits chattered in the live oaks. As I approached the top of the ridge, I heard a starling sounding off with clicks and whistles and a variety of finch like sounds.
Suddenly I heard the distinct sound of geese flying overhead. I had seen and heard Canadian geese flying across the mountains to the east several times in March. In March I figured the geese were taking off from Bass Lake and working their way north to nesting places, but I was surprised to hear them now. I looked up over the mountain, but I didn’t see any geese. I looked all around and couldn’t see geese anywhere.
As I came to a house with a large oak in front, the call stopped and was replaced by a series of clicks and whistles: a starling perched on a bare limb was vocalizing. He paid no attention to me as I watched him and he changed his song several times. When I resumed my walk, I heard the geese calling again. This time I knew the source. I turned around to watch the starling make the geese call for a few more seconds, and then he switched back to other calls.
I suppose the starling had also listened to the geese flying overhead weeks earlier and learned their call. He did sound good. It was his best song that day. For me the sound of geese flying overhead evokes a definite emotion and the starling’s imitation gave me the same feeling. I have no idea why the starling was using the sound of geese in his repertoire that day. Maybe his mate appreciates it, too.
I know the starlings are often unwanted, and I regret their displacement of other birds, especially bluebirds, but I enjoyed this starling’s amazingly accurate rendition of a flock of geese winging their way north for the spring.