Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Startling Story of Starlings



A Startling Story of Starlings

And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
 All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks…
                         Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

It was dusk, 1957. They came in from the north, the sky black and blue with them. In great drifts of dark turbulence they settled among the trees along Chapel, Henry, and Walton Streets depositing their day’s dinner on sidewalks, lawns and verandas. Starlings. Thousands of starlings. Tens of thousands of starlings. Night after night. All summer long. Year in, year out. Starlings. STARLINGS!!! 
Incredibly, a poet played a part in their introduction to North America. Shakespeare had referenced the mimicking abilities of starlings in Henry IV, Part 1 wherein Hotspur desired to drive King Henry delirious with a trained starling.The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I'll holler 'Mortimer!' Nay I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion
The American Acclimatization Society in New York thought it a wonderful tribute to introduce North America with every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s scripts. The Bard’s birds included more than 600 avian species. The hundred starlings released in 1890 are 200 million today.   
In 1957, neighbourhood kids huddled around their black and whites to watch the debut of the picket-fence serenity of Leave It To Beaver. Outside, the starlings were in full chatter. Inside, the residents were in full batter and bruised mode. As Sputnik 1 drifted across the heavens, no one knew that one of the most bizarre episodes in Cobourg’s history was about to unfold.

And from the realms
Of the shadowy elms
A tide-like darkness overwhelms

But the night is fair,
And everywhere
A warm, soft vapor fills the air,

And above, in the light
Of the star-lit night,
Swift birds of passage wing their flight
                             Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Cobourg finally had it up to the ankles with birdboo. How bad was it? Early mornings saw town trucks hosing down the streets and sidewalks. Fire trucks were brought in occasionally to rinse/repeat/rinse the trees.
Residents of the day commented:
“You can’t look up with your mouth open.”
“People can’t sleep because they have to keep their windows shut.”
An elderly woman resident of Chapel Street said, “I would like to get up into the tree after them myself. They have wakened me up at 4:30am for the past 16 years. They fly off during the day but the terrible things come back in the evening. You can see by the sidewalk the mess they make. We have had to scrub it and scrub it. The odour is something terrific.”
Housewives, if they had to walk the street in the early evening, did so with open umbrellas. Not a rain cloud was in sight.
“THE TREES ALL SAG, STREETS TURN WHITE”, read the headline.
The starlings are back in town and Chapel Street near Walton and Henry resembles a white-washed fence. If there is one thing to be said about starlings, it is that they are well-talented in pursuit of painting the trees white. They are also heavy and noisy. There are trees sagging under their numbers, and the air rings with their twittering. Fortunately it rains frequently and the streets have a temporary return to asphalt blackness then water runs fast and grey in the gutters.
Neighbourhood children, well, boys actually, exploited the mess of manure. After tv dinner, oven doors closed, screen doors slammed and Davey Crockett kids ran rocket, then slip, slide and surf the sidewalks glistening with the freshmess of yuckmuck. Heedless glee, cheers and chatter, as Fig did a bumburn, while Whopper ‘faced’ the consequence of a major oops! Laundry bills in the neighbourhood rose higher than the flight of a frightened herd of birds.

I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;
Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.
Robert Frost

Hurricane Hazel downed Chapel Street’s only chestnut tree the previous year, so a handy supply of brown nuts for bird bashing was no longer available. Marbles, especially bonkers, were too precious to squander on any bird. Sticks never make it through the branches to the teasing targets. But slapping slats made a slambam birdbang sharp as a .22 causing maple trees to explode in a flurry of wings, leaves and feces of fear.
Parents demanded a poop-free zone. Cobourg Council responded.
Councillor J. J. Fullerton, chair of the Health, Sanitation and Sewage Disposal Committee declared that starlings were “responsible for the spread of certain diseases of the skin and respiratory system… they attract parasitic insects, their droppings nurture germs. The clean-up of bird droppings on sidewalks around schools and public buildings is a definite menace to workmen.”
Councillor Fullerton presented Roost No More, a substance to be spread on trees that gave a “hot foot” to the birds coming in to roost. Picture it, roughly shaved men dressed in red plaid flannel Kenora formal wear sprinkling fairy dust onto the tip top of trees to scorch the tender tootsies of the demon starlings.
If the avian swarmers had been yellow Finches, little nuggets of sunshine flitting about, or red Cardinals, or orange Baltimore Orioles, or Scarlet Tanagers, or Red Wing Blackbirds, resident rage roaming the streets in lynch mob mode would have remained an Alabama cultural event. Birds of colour wouldn’t behave this way – only black birds full of white excrementality got the hot foot massage message. Pirouette on this, you %#$@&^% birds!
The local newspaper reassured the town that there was no “question of cruelty in ridding a community of birds with such a compound. The birds are not killed by the preparation they are merely encouraged to move.” Chemical warfare was on. Or was it?
Later that summer Councillor Jones nagged: “Have they had their hot foot?”
Councillor Fullerton: “The stuff’s here but we can’t go ahead until we take the tops off some of the trees.”
Jones: “Well if you wait long enough the birds will be gone.”
Fullerton: “Well then, we’ll do it in the spring.”
Jones: “Sure.”
Sure as shootin’ it didn`t happen. The starlings proliferated, causing one Chapel Street resident to lose it. He climbed to the gables of his house and fired his shotgun into the trees. The local paper reported no dead birds, no complaints made, no charges laid, things became normal. If you, dear reader, thought this wild west mess couldn’t get worse, read on.

We had fed the heart on fantasies
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare
                     William Butler Yeats

(THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS VIOLENCE AND HATRED.
READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.)
        
The Cobourg Sentinel Star, September 11, 1958, reported, “It was National ‘Hate Starlings’ Night … when angered residents armed with 12-guage shotguns” prowled “about the streets in the most heavily populated areas. For several hours the town reverberated to the noise of guns. It sounded like the Gunfight at the OK Corral was being rerun for the benefit of Cobourg.”
The report went on to describe that “children ran about excitedly in the waning light carrying bushel baskets into which they threw fallen birds.” Yes, it’s true. The paper did not report that the neighbourhood boys had been armed with firecrackers, especially ‘cannon crackers’ for shoving down the throats of wounded birds. The stuffed birds were thrown into the trees the moment the sizzling fuse reached the beak. It was Lord of the Flies as grenades of gore-gob detonated in a furious flurry of feathers hither and yon gone. Without pumping irony, the paper reported, “Police cruised about the area keeping things under control.
The next morning, while town trucks washed the blood, feathers and gore from the sidewalks and street, Police Chief, Hod Pearse, announced that an estimated 1200 starlings had been massacred that warm autumn night. Later that week, nearby churches chirped:  

“Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?”
                   Matthew 6:26

The birds returned to Ground Zero with a vengeance the following year. The battle was engaged. Town council easily approved $50 for ammo. Deputy Reeve Erskine described the congestion of so many starlings that they now roosted on verandas; “The mess was unbearable,” he said. The newspaper reported that “Mr Erskine’s expression indicated the state in which this particular veranda could be found.”
Town Council formed an ad hoc ‘Extermination Committee’ to formulate a lasting solution. This year the starling shoot was to be supplemented with sound effects; the agony of defeat and despair. Residents came out from all over town to witness the spectacle of sharp-shooters with instructions to wound a bird or two. For what you ask? Well, it gets worse.

(THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS VIOLENCE, TORTURE & HATRED. READER DISCRETION IS WELL-ADVISED.)

It’s not easy to wound a starling. A bullet to the beak or body is instant death for such a small creature. So it took a couple dozen deaths before a wounded starling fell and flopped inappropriately on the ground. Recording equipment was rushed to the bird; a microphone was shoved to its beak as it wailed out in agony. Break a leg, break a wing, prolong the moment, get it on tape. Hurry before it dies.
The following week, summer simmernoons brought the cling clang of the ice cream truck. The Beav Boys and Eddie Hassle fled their homes with a dime in hand worth two scoops in the cone. At dusk a new truck appeared on the street to disrupt the usual shinny games. It was outfitted with three speakers. For the next two hours every weekday evening, (union rules) it roamed the neighbourhood streets blasting out the death cries.
The trees exploded with starlings bombarding the streets with birdboo. As it passed they settled back to roost. Over and over again it went. Children watched boring re-runs of Father Knows Best, looking forward to the next gunfight outside.

So luminous with living wings,
So musical with feathered joy . . .
Not for all pleasure fortune brings,
Would I such ecstasy destroy.
                     Robert Service

The slaughter became more problematic by 1961. Mayor Jack Heenan declared that “No one wants to dispose of the dead starlings because everyone is such a good shot.” The police chief upped the budget to $80 for ammo. Councillor R J Cooper preferred a shootout over loudspeakers because “It’s a little more severe and the starlings fall down dead.” By the thousands.
Councillor Thomas revealed just how desperate the situation had become, declaring, “The citizens say we can remove every tree if it will get rid of them.” The discussion turned to water proof loudspeakers and amplifier mounted in the trees at Chapel and College. The Public Utilities Commission came under fire for inexplicably removing the wires to the speakers.
Cobourg Councillor, Lenah Fisher’s debut appearance at council was an offer of free dinner at Marie Dressler House to the man who killed the most starlings. Not to be outdone, the pro-squawkbox councillors suggested the snuff tape be played over the radio station so residents could place their sets in the windows with the volume topped to torment the birds. I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TAKE IT ANY MORE!
So there it was, the summer of 61; Wally, Beav and the boys distracted by urgent turbulent hormones ignored the nightly howl of horror amid the occasional carnage of gunfire; seeking refuge on The Three Hills in Victoria Park; the discussion was about emerging zits.
1962. What happened? Where were they? The tens of thousands of starlings? Few noticed their absence as they casually walked the streets in open toed shoes and sandals. The kids began twisting at the ‘Pav’ in Victoria Park and spawning to dawn under the simple stars over the parent-free wild West Beach.
Cobourg once again turned it’s super-dooper uber-sensitive attention to the perpetual whinefest concerning the use and abuse of Victoria Park.

Come, on wings of joy we'll fly
To where my bower hangs on high;
Come, and make thy calm retreat
Among green leaves and blossoms sweet.
                                         William Blake

Reports trickled back to Cobourg that the starlings had chosen to roost in a New England sea-side community where they starred in a 1963 Alfred Hitchcock documentary drearily titled, The Birds.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Tribute to Leonard Cohen on Cobourg Sidewalk



A tribute to Leonard Cohen chalked onto the sidewalk of downtown Cobourg by Sandra Bojin

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Email Exchange re National Flag Protocols


Cobourg is My Poemtown

COBOURG: a Playground for the Imagine Nation of the Peoples Republic of Poetry