Some animals are just more opportunistic than others. In most cases, it cannot help but serve as a survival tactic. Bears are notoriously omnivorous and remarkably clever at finding ways to access nutrients that accommodate their diverse palates. It is for this reason that many National Park must use trash cans of a durable material and must feature an opening device that is intuitive enough for humans but too cumbersome for bears’ big round paws (and limited grasping capability). Lacking such complexity, bears can usually figure out how to invade and pillage the contents within. They can get into cars. They can access bear bags if not hooked up high enough. Compare this characteristic with grazing animals like sheep or deer, for which the overwhelming majority of herbaceous plants constitute their lunch plate. They don’t have to outwit prey; they don’t have to work hard to find their food. Their lower tendency toward opportunism correlates to the size and number of folds within their brain tissue.
But sustenance is just one incentive for an animal to modify its behavior to meet evolutionary biology aspirations. A safe habitat is equally important for the birthing, nesting, and rearing of offspring, and this may be even more rudimentary. And, in this context—the building of nests—birds seem to depend on opportunism just as much as bears. I’ve covered this in the past: a nest cutely poised in a home’s front-door wreath and in the troughs formed by letters on a business sign. The example below isn’t necessarily novel, but it’s a bit more extreme:
It’s a run-of-the-mill strip mall outside Charles Town in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, but even at this distance, the prevalence of nests is noticeable. They’re basically poised on any letter that offers enough of a horizontal surface.
There’s even one in the little closed counter within the “R” and the even tinier closed counter to “A”, as well as one wedged in the 30-degree vertex “crook” formed through the two strokes in “N”. And I think I see another in the aperture formed through the lower curve to “G”.
They’re everywhere. But equally prevalent are the deterrents, what are commonly known as bird spikes or pigeon spikes, a humane way to prevent birds otherwise impelled to perch on these horizontal surfaces. It doesn’t hurt them but it deters them. Supposedly. Here at the Dollar General in Somerset Village shopping center, the pigeon spikes are everywhere, yet they don’t seem to be working.
This colony of birds seems to be penetrating the fortifications. And what kind of birds are they—starlings? That had always been my assumption in the past, having learned many years ago of a building that generated fake hawk sounds—a raptor to scare away what the docent assured me were starlings. To mollify my ignorance, we’ll call them starlings here.
Is there something about Somerset Village in Charles Town that attracts huge colonies—sorry, I mean murmurations—of starlings? It doesn’t seem like it. A furniture store right next to the Dollar General hasn’t found a single avian tenant.
Perhaps it’s an attraction to a certain color? Yellow, for example? Most other mammals lack the ability to see the same range of colors that humans do, but many bird species are known for their keen eyesight. Yellow isn’t a huge enticement though. And ability to distinguish colors isn’t the same as the ability to detect movement from far distances, a skill for which birds and many mammals surpass humans. A few doors down from the Dollar General is a Gold’s Gym—same color of yellow but no starlings.
The way these little birds maneuver so deftly around those pigeon spikes, and the way they manage to wedge themselves into the tiniest of nooks—both of these observations certainly hint at their opportunism. Starlings (still my top vote) typically prefer nests in crevices: the big blocky letters of “DOLLAR GENERAL” may actually offer greater recesses than Gold’s Gym or Schewel’s Home. And starlings are famously highly gregarious, social birds. It may have only taken the first “colonizer” to help signal to an entire murmuration that the Dollar General logo is a particularly opportune place to nest.
The prevalence of nests at this specific cluster of mounted lettering reminds me (against all odds) of a fairly recent blog post featuring a prevalence of bumper stickers on one particular guardrail at one particular exit ramp around Wilmington, Delaware. In that scenario, all it took is that first person to slap a bumper sticker on a guardrail. No one removed it. And though I have no idea how long it took to get where it is today, the fact remains that someone took the initiative, violated the existing code of order, and in a matter of time—wham! A guardrail is replete with stickers. Most likely unintentionally, the first bumper stickerer engaged in mimesis without any involvement of the Internet. I wouldn’t claim these starlings created a meme and they certainly couldn’t avail themselves of the Information Superhighway. But they took the refinement of their existing habitat and endowed it with the precision of an optimal nesting area…all through the sort of signaling that social creatures can deploy. And the opportunism followed.
Many birds are very social—some as social as mammals (and much more social than most marsupials). And the “bird brained” epithet is completely undeserved. The class Aves involves considerable diversity in size, behavior, mating rituals, and nesting habits; it logically follows that intelligence should vary greatly as well. I have no idea where starlings fit in on the continuum of bird intelligence, but I’d suspect they’re somewhere higher than ostriches (the low end) but well below that of parrots or crows, both of whose respective families Psittacoidea and Corvoidea are among the most intelligent of all animals, right up there with primates and cetaceans. Starlings, I suspect, are closer in intelligence to that of owls (which fail to live up to their wise mythology and are merely average).
Regardless of their abilities, the starlings’ relation to the nooks and crannies of the Dollar General logo in Charles Town offer evidence enough of a tendency toward collective opportunism. This simple sign probably hosts at least 50 birds if one includes the hatchlings. The mounted logo may be a completely synthetic, abiotic feature—a contraption of plastic and metal—but for these starlings (or whatever birds these are) it’s home sweet home. And they have as good of a nose for it as bears do for the munchies hoisted in the trees near a human campsite. Or beak, if you will.