One long-term employee of the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center enjoys socializing, thought he isn’t much of a conversationalist.
“He will repeat what he hears us say, if we keep talking to him,” said Claire Coco, director of the center.
“You can see him watching your mouth as you talk, studying how it moves,” she said as, she held out a dried meal worm, which he delicately plucked from her fingers with his beak.
His name is Starsky N. Hutch, and he is a European starling who came to the center two or three years ago when a former camper noticed something wasn’t quite right about the bird.
“She was in the parking lot of a home improvement store with her mom when this bird flew down and landed right on top of her head,” Coco said. And he stayed there long enough for them to realize it was no accident.
He was still a juvenile bird at the time, and while it’s easy to read the incident as endearing, the child remembered something she’d learned at summer camp.
“Wild birds act like wild birds,” Coco said. “They know where to find their food sources, and it isn’t by flying to people.”
The fact that Starsky was so easy to catch, so willing to be handled and hungry despite the food sources around him was a good sign that he’d been reared by people and probably never learned how to fend for himself.
He probably would have died fairly quickly, Coco said, if left to his own devices, when he became too malnourished to fend of predators or disease. He already had an obvious break in his left leg that had mended crookedly.
“Someone probably found him like that, and hand-reared him until he healed, and he got away when he was old enough to fly or was released,” she said.
He has a loyal following among the staff and visitors to the Nature Center, said Jessi Ryan, center supervisor. He seems to enjoy interacting with the people who come in every day, and is especially fixated on shoes, which is usually the first thing he looks at when he meets someone new.
He likes to get down on the ground and poke around them, she said, though he’s most known for his morning baths.
“He makes a huge mess. It’s almost like a sprinkler system went off by his cage,” Ryan said.
It seems each staff member has a Starsky story.
There was the time he learned to imitate the sound of the back door to the facility creaking open, leading to some very tense evening shifts, until they finally realized it was Starsky, not the door.
“He’s fun — sassy,” said Stephanie Wheeler, a program aid at the center. Starsky’s wings are clipped for his own safety — if he used his full speed inside the building or his hutch, he could easily hurt himself. He can hover above the ground and uses wing power to leap from perch to perch, whether that’s in his own hutch or loose in the center.
“He likes to explore the building, so he’ll flutter around but prefers not to be picked up by hands, so I try to respect that. He’ll jump on my shoe, then I’ll kneel down so he can jump to my shoulder and then to my finger. He gets mad if you pick him up, though, and will grab you with his beak to let you know,” she said, laughing.
The pokes don’t hurt that much, because of the way starlings’ beaks are designed.
Many birds have powerful beaks that they use to crack seeds, often by clamping down, but the power of Starsky’s beak is in reverse — he pries things open by using his beak point as a wedge, then using his muscles to open his beak.
“He’ll prod around the wrinkles and lines of my sweatshirt, trying to find something to pry open. He’s probably doing the same with the shoes,” Coco said, adding that he would have used this instinct to open up tiny holes in search of insects.
So far, he can say several phrases, including “Bluebonnet Swamp,” which volunteers spent time teaching him.
He rarely speaks on command, however. “You have to walk away and pretend to ignore him, then he’ll get started,” she said.
It’s not the first time they’ve had a resident bird, Coco said. A few years back, they had a love bird that was found in the wild, also by seeking out a human for food, but he started showing signs of stress from being left alone at night, so one of the volunteers adopted him.
“This works because Starsky seems to enjoy the stimulation of interacting with people, but he doesn’t mind his alone time at night,” she said. “If he began showing any signs of stress, we’d have to figure out another solution.”
While Starsky has become a valued member of the Nature Center rotation, Coco said, his presence there is a cautionary tale of sorts.
“Things worked out well in this case, but people should think carefully before they take in or feed any wild animals,” she said, especially younger ones.
“The more food they get from people, the less they practice foraging for their native food sources, and what results are wildlife who are dependent on people for food,” she said. They are the wildlife that eventually become nuisance animals, and the end is rarely a good one.
“If you find an animal, especially a young one, that you think is orphaned or in distress, the best thing you can do is call a certified wildlife rehab specialist,” she said. “Don’t try to care for it yourself, because if it will ever survive a release, it needs to have skills to survive.”
A human-reared bird or animal is no more likely to survive on its own than your family pet, she said.
Putting bird seed into feeders does not create dependency, said Gina Periou with Wild Birds Unlimited in Baton Rouge in an interview last year about bird watching.
“We don’t feed the birds because they are hungry. We feed the birds in the hopes that they will come closer so we can see them,” she said.
The difference comes with handling animals on a regular basis, Coco said. It’s something she cautions her students against.
Had the center not taken Starsky in, he would have gone to Wildlife and Fisheries, where he likely would have been destroyed. European starlings are not native to the United States and are therefore considered pest birds.