The plan was to shoot some starlings, cook them, and describe how delicious they are, thereby launching a year-round blood sport that nobody would be against.
Everybody hates starlings. They don't belong here, being native to Europe, where nobody likes them either, for the very good reason that they are nasty and noisy. The starling has become North America's worst avain pest in the 86 years since eight of them were releases in Central Park by a consortium of dummies who wanted strolling New Yorkers to be able to enjoy all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare.
After helping the city fathers make Gotham uninhabitable, the starlings spread from city to city and suburb to suburb, slaughtering songbirds and murdering the sleep that knits up the ravell's sleave of care. They congregate by the millions in spring and fall, roosting in piney woods by preference, and make shrieking, stinking hells of such bosky dells as Graceham, Md., and Ft. Bragg, N.C.
The Army tried to clean out the North Carolina roost with soap and water, but like most ecologically sound remedies it didn't work very well. Theoretically, if you spray the birds on a cold night, the soap dissolves the oil on their feathers, letting water penetrate and fatalize the wind-chill factor.
The trouble is that the victims don't go quietly. Lots of them fly away when you start to spray, and the ones that do get a good soaking flutter to the ground and hop around looking pitiful for the TV cameras before they finish croaking.
Such spectacles do not win recruits for the all-volunteer Army.
So. Poisons are passe, and all other methods tried so far either amuse the birds or simply scare them into the next county. Is there a solution to the starling problem?
Yes. Sen the hunters after them.
The prowess of the American hunter is legendary. A hundred organizations have a thousand federal suits pending that claim no animal is safe from him. Remember the bison that once roamed the Shenandoah Valley, they say, Remember the Eastern mountain lion, Remember the passenger pigeon.
The passenger pigeon. Within living memory passenger pigeons darkened the American skies. If you shot an arrow into the air it would come to earth with pigeons strung on it like shiskesquabs. Their roosts stretched through miles of woods, pigeons cheek by beak until the branches broke. You had to wear hip boots slog through the droppings.
Hunter did slog through the droppings, of course. Hunters will slog through anything, and pay for the privilege. They killed passenger pigeons by the millions. Trainloads of them were shipped to the cities, and when the market was glutted they were fed to hogs. Passenger pigeons were as thick as, ah, starlings , and then one day they were gone.
The great-grandsons of those pigeon-blasters could serve the starling the same way, if only they were mobilized. To start the ball rolling I took my shotgun out to a patch of woods in the hamlet of Opal, Va., near Warrenton, where starlings have roosted for years, to gather a few dozen for the pot. I stopped off at the Clark Brothers Trading Post to sharpen my eye breaking clay pigeons on the firing range.
"The starlings didn't come in this year," manager Scott Carter said. "Don't know why. What do you want with the damn things anyway?"
"Going to eat them. I have a friend who's going to try various ways of cooking them, and then I'm going to go on the Dinal Shore show and demonstrate."
"It will create a raging demand for starlings. Every hunter's wife will be nagging him to go shoot them. Starlings will become an endangered species. The Audubon Society and the NRA will cosponsor a statue of me."
"Well, go out back on the range and shoot somw starlings," Carter said. "They fly over there all the time."
They don't fly over the range all the time, it turned out. They only fly over when all guns have been laid aside so shooters can go check their targets. Then the starlings come whizzing over like street, cackling.
After a couple of hours Carter took pity and sent me off to his farm pond, where the starlings presumable were not so highly trained. In two days, I spent two boxes of shells blowing holes in places in sky where starlings had just been or were expected to arrive shortly, without ever disturbing a feather.
Starlings do what ship captains do when they are fired upon. They "chase the splashes," heading for the place where the last shot went, in the expectation that the gunner will meanwhile have selected a new aiming point. Between sallies the starlings perched in the surrounding trees, just out of sight, tittering. Starlings did not become the dominant North American bird by being dumb.
On the evening of the second day, while I was sitting in the living room massaging a stiff neck, daughter Laura came in to report that there was a bird in distress in the backyard.
I captured the creature, a very weak fledging, and we calmed it and put it to bed for the night in a cardboard box supplied with water, bits of cat food, grapes, gerbil food and anything else that came to hand.
The bird books weren't very useful, since they seldom illustrate juveniles of less than six months, but eventually my suspicions about the ugly little devil were confirmed. We had rescued a baby starling.
In the morning he was much refreshed, even feisty. I took the rascal out of the box. "If he lives to grow up, he'll be killing bluebirds," I told the children. "The proper thing to do would be to kill him."
"Yecch," they said.
"Are you going to take him, broil, or just carve him into steaks?" their mother asked.
"Yeech," I said. The starling slipped from my nerveless fingers. When last seen it was fluttering from tree to tree in the direction of Graceham, Md.