As a child, I was often taken to our local shopping centre in Perry Barr, north Birmingham (since replaced by a tin shed with pretensions of being a mall) to see a Mynah bird (Acridotheres tristis). It resided in what I now realise was a ridiculously small cage, on the counter of a petshop, and would delight all and sundry by asking repeatedly, “Where’s George?”, wolf whistling, or performing another of its many acts of mimicry.
Now my ears are more attuned to such things I realise that the journey was unnecessary. Still living in Birmingham, I can hear the avian equivalent of Rory Bremner any time I wish, simply by opening a window and listening to the Mynah’s relatives, my local Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). With the onset of autumn, they flock in ever increasing numbers, resplendent in new, strikingly sleek and spotty plumage, and very vocal. As well as having an uncanny ability to sound like any number of other birds, they have been known to imitate car alarms and mobile phones, and even children’s playground screaming.
The quiet suburban road where I live is rarely without Starlings, at any time of day, but the city-centre skies are no longer darkened by the flocks which came in to roost there in my childhood. A backfiring car would see thousands take off at once, and have pedestrians reaching for tissues to remove their supposedly “lucky” deposits from clothing or — worse — hair.
The birds in my garden are far better behaved, except when treated to their favourite delicacy: leftover, raw, shortcrust pastry. They descend from my and my neighbours’ rooftops the second I step back from the bird table, and the food disappears in moments, in a cloud of flying feathers and squawking and pecking bills, the birds mingling too rapidly to count accurately.
One particularly convincing, if annoying, individual has perfected the art of reproducing a Buzzard‘s (Buteo buteo) mewing call, no doubt heard in more open country. Ever gullible, I rush into the garden each time it performs this trick, in the hope of adding the real thing to my “garden list”. So far, without success.
[The above was written some time ago, with the intention of emulating the Guardian’s Country Diary column. As such, it has exactly 200 words, not counting the subsequent addition of scientific names. These are marked up with the draft Species Microformat, which I developed, and which is already being used on Wikipedia.]