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Starling Advocate Takes Flak For Defense Of Maligned Bird

April 3, 1988

CHICAGO (AP) _ Mark Spreyer doesn’t mind when people say his job is for the birds. Even his business cards read: ″Mark Spreyer, the naturalist nobody likes, defending the species nobody wants. Starlings my speciality.″

Spreyer never meant to become an advocate for one of the nation’s least- liked birds, but the 31-year-old ornithologist for the Chicago Academy of Sciences thinks they’re getting a bad rap as messy invaders who take over other birds’ turf.

He recently delivered a lecture titled ″In Defense of Starlings″ before the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association in Denver, and he has also spoken on the birds’ behalf in New York and Orlando, Fla.

He even has one for a pet. Rod Starling shares Spreyer’s suburban Barrington apartment, has learned to talk and has been known to fly to the telephone when it rings and get the receiver off the hook.

Some of Spreyer’s enthusiasm has caught on, according to a local veterinarian, Peregrine Wolff, interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times recently after encountering Spreyer’s pet.

″My opinion of starlings was not very high before I met this bird,″ said Ms. Wolff, who said Rod imitated Spreyer’s telephone bell and answering- machine beep, and then in a Hitchcockian twist, said clearly, ″This is Mark Spreyer.″

Starlings are related to talking myna birds, and Spreyer said Sunday their talent as mimics helped them wing their way into his heart. ″I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but eight years ago, I used to consider them as owl food,″ said Spreyer.

Spreyer became better acquainted with starlings two years ago while preparing for a lecture on urban wildlife, which includes other European imports such as house sparrows and pigeons.

″People are trained to think all introduced things are bad and all native things are good,″ Spreyer said Sunday. ″I’ve come to realize that we have to deal with the environment as it is today.″

Starlings, which often gather in large, noisy flocks, have gotten an undeservedly bad reputation as mess-makers and nuisances, while their good points are overlooked, he said.

The black songbirds use a completely different food source than other birds, he said.

While most birds have strong squeezing muscles in their beaks to enable them to crack nuts, for example, starlings have mighty muscles for prying things open, adapting them perfectly for digging up cutworms and other pests.

Groundskeepers at some golf courses welcome starlings, which reduce the need for pesticides, Spreyer said.

″There are plenty of other birds that make a mess,″ and the starling’s reputation for displacing native birds with aggressive nesting habits is overblown, he said.

Some critics remain unconvinced, including Ron Ogden, Illinois director of animal-damage control for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

″They’ve gotten a bad rap because they’re bad birds,″ he told the Sun- Times. ″I can’t believe anybody would be talking up starlings after all the damage they’ve caused. ... I know Mark, I like him, but he doesn’t have to deal with them every day like I do. They give me fits.″

Ogden said crews have been pruning trees around the old state Capitol in Springfield to evict non-native starlings whose droppings made a ″teetotal mess.″

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