In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams describes a visit to the local dump, to count birds, at face value not the most thrilling ornithological assignment. A dump is a dump, after all, and an active one has unmistakable olfactory drawbacks. Besides, there are few birds to be counted besides the wheeling, swirling flocks of gulls and starlings. They do offer entertainment: “[t]he starlings gorge themselves, bumping into each other like drunks. They are not discretionary. They’ll eat anything just like us. Three starlings picked a turkey carcass clean. Afterward, they crawled inside and wore it as a helmet.”

The entertainment value of this sesquipedalian carcass beast notwithstanding, the starlings make an uncomfortable little morality play, an demonstration of ecological ill manners from which there is a lot to learn. Starlings are textbook invasives, interlopers from Europe, pushing out other species wherever they go because of their aggression and adaptability. That is, they are the winged equivalent to squirrels, rats, and roaches. Pests. Not quite a part of nature because somehow out of balance with it and clearly out of place. Wild, but not. Too willing to adapt to us and colonize the urban environments we set aside for ourselves.

Williams shines a wry light on the contradictions in our thoughts about these bold and brash adventurers, who are riding our own coattails, succeeding so spectacularly only where we handicap the more discriminating and pickier natives: “Perhaps we project onto starlings that which we deplore in ourselves: our numbers, our aggression, our greed, and our cruelty. Like starlings, we are taking over the world.”

It’s an uncomfortable realization to think of Europeans as the first truly invasive species in North America, now succeeded by vast numbers from other continents..

Recognizing ourselves in the physiognomy of a pest is probably a salutary exercise, a potential (and much-needed) check on our own aggression and adaptability. All the same, I’m afraid that Williams is incorrect in her supposition that we hate starlings because we despise our own starling inner self. By default, we look at the world through the eyes of our clan. That is to say, what we loathe in others, we might well admire in ourselves. By default, our thinking is partial, partisan, self-centered, and self-justifying.

In a recent column, John Tierney reports on research that shows exactly how our perspective changes according to whether we look at an action as performed by ourselves (or our associates) or by someone not associated with ourselves.

I don’t want to come off as despairing about human nature. I’m not. Our adaptability, resourcefulness, resilience, and inventiveness, just like the starlings’, is an admirable default setting. Moreover, I am convinced that on top of those traits, we have the ability to step back and rise above, to reconsider and decide differently. To put a check on our starling impulses and act rationally, overcoming the perspective of short-term gain and immediate gratification.


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July 2008
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