Starling People

The starlings are a plague on our feeder.

They roost in a stand of dead ash that borders the wetland, forty to sixty at a time.  Their murmuration, when they rise into the air in a cloud of floating, swirling birds, is beautiful.  Their descent on our seed is not.

I don’t mind one or two, or even three or four.  But this new batch descended, for a time, in the tens and twenties, spilling over the (starling-proof!) feeders until the seeds poured out, bullying off the other birds, mobbing everything.  In less than a day they’d have the suet feeder picked clean.

Eventually, with advice from our local bird store, we managed to reduce their numbers.  Safflower that brings all the other, little birds, but that starlings don’t favor.  Careful timing of the suet for the woodpeckers.  A Youtube recording of a starling distress call that I periodically play out the back door on my phone.

They still come, but only three or four now, and when we see them starting to gang up on the feeder we open the back door and make a sharp “shkt” sound and they fly off, guilty.  The arrival of the red-winged blackbirds for spring, as well as our rowdy brood of jays and a possessive, feisty red-headed woodpecker, have further managed the numbers down.  The farmland around us is thawing and offering up tasty goods for them too.

But when I think about why I loathe starlings, I feel a little guilty, because I have an unfortunate to loathe the same tendencies in people.

You know who I mean.  The people who take too much and never say thank you.  Who come to the well over and over and over again for health and advice and resources and to lean on you and ask for favors and who then take off without a second’s thought for everything they’ve plundered.  Energy-suckers.  Greedy people.  Grifters.

Down the street from my work, a Catholic group hands out food aid at a local parish during the weekday lunch hour.  Often, on my walks to and from campus, I pass by.  Most of the people in line are docile, resigned, even.  Clearly homeless, they wait with luggage and trash bags in the line without speaking, and they accept bags from the workers wordlessly before they shuffle off.

But one man we passed, one day, was loud.  He jostled people around and cut line in front of the other folk, who simply backed away, heads down.  He cursed at everyone.  He cursed at the aid workers.  “You give me that bag,” he snapped, and cursed some more.  “Give me that food!”

They gave him the food as kindly as they gave it to everyone else, and he walked down the street berating them.

The coworker walking with me that day betrayed a flash of anger.  “They shouldn’t feed him,” she snapped.  “Acting like that.”

And it’s easy to want to shame her for that, because it’s clear the man was unwell and needed food as much as anyone else, but the truth is that we all have that certain kind of person we can’t tolerate.  The mother we think is scamming the kids’ bookbag drive because she’s been back four times for “her neighbor’s kids” when she only has two herself.  The people at the kitchen dinners who swoop up all the leftovers before asking if anyone in need wants them.  The obnoxious friend who throws a fit when you only send a card for their birthday but refuses to remember when yours even is.

The people we think should know better.  The people who have enough.  The people who want more than they deserve, or who behave badly, or who don’t seem to care about anybody else or the damage they cause as long as they get theirs.  The people who push those far more deserving out of the way to get what they expect is their due.

You know.  Starlings.

But Jesus died for those people, too.

And that’s where grace becomes so knotty.  Because without even wanting to, we place prerequisites on it that God does not.  We expect people to behave contritely or at least decently.  We want them to know where they stand and who they are.  We don’t want audacity, or grifters, or unrepentant sinners.  We want people who act like they know who Jesus is and what He did and as though they believe it even if we know they don’t.

And God sends us starlings.  Because He loves them like he loves us.  And we are asked to serve.

I’ll end with this. 

There is a man I know whom I can only call profoundly obnoxious.  He’s argumentative and demanding.  Everyone sighs when his name is on a meeting because he’ll hold it up to berate and demand answers from everyone involved, regardless of how much has been addressed or solved before his arrival.  Just that kind of guy.  A starling kind of guy, who expects the world to accommodate his needs and doesn’t care about anyone else’s.

I’ve had to calmly ask him a time or two to calm down and stop being disruptive.  So have others.  And then one day, in a meeting with many people, with everyone’s annoyance levels high and his demands loud and voluble, he stumbled to silence.  “I’m sorry,” he said haltingly.  “I’m really irritating.  I grew up in this abusive environment.”  And for a startling, brief moment, he drew close to tears.  “So I just kind of am used to yelling instead of communicating calmly.  Anyway.”

He went on.  The meeting went on.  And there was no miraculous fix.  He is still, frankly, an obnoxious jerk.  But that moment of vulnerability changed how I saw his behavior—or rather, how I prepare myself to encounter it.  Not with permission for him to run wild, but with an understanding that he’s a person who has suffered, and who causes suffering, and God loves him, too – even as he is.

Starlings make me nuts, but I still felt brokenhearted for the one that flew into our dryer vent before we capped it and died there.  A living creature.  God’s creature, made in love.  As all God’s creatures are made in love.

And as Easter approaches, I’m keeping in mind the starlings I knew—the unlovable people, for whom God’s love must sometimes feel especially faraway.  We might be the only ones near to offer them a glimpse of it.

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