Faith Gong: Starlings in the stove

It begins with a faint flutter, like a rustle of paper. Enough to make you stop and listen, wondering if you might have imagined it. 

But the rustling repeats at intervals, growing louder as it gets closer. The dogs take notice, lifting their heads before running over to investigate. Still, you think, it might be nothing; it might go away. 

Until the unmistakable beating begins, accompanied by a screeching sound like nails on a chalkboard. It’s not nails on a chalkboard: It’s the sound of a bird’s feet and wings struggling against a metal pipe. 

There’s a Starling in the wood stove. Again.

Here’s how it goes: We hear the noises from the stovepipe. We try to deny the obvious, but eventually someone spots the bird itself through the smudged ash on the stove’s glass door. The bird flutters around inside the stove for a moment before attempting to fly back up the pipe — generating more of the screeching noise of talons on metal. This cycle repeats for about a day, during which my husband wonders whether we should just go ahead and set a fire in the stove and put an end to it all, and the rest of us protest his cruelty. Eventually, I’ll duct tape a large clear plastic garbage bag over the open side hatch of the stove. If all goes well — about half of the time — the bird flies into the bag, and I’m able to remove the bag with the bird still inside and release it back into the wild. 

When all doesn’t go well, the bird manages to escape the bag, and panic ensues. Children flee the room, shrieking. The dogs chase the bird, and we chase the dogs. The bird bangs into windows and perches in high places until I manage to corner it and carry it outside. 

We have contacted our chimney sweep. Apparently they’ve installed a cap that keeps rainwater from entering the stovepipe, but for some reason it can’t keep birds out (nor, might I add, does it do a particularly fine job keeping out the rainwater, at least during more intense storms.) They claim that they can’t close off the pipe entirely, since the smoke has to escape somewhere. 

I think we should get a second opinion. 

This is not the first time a bird has flown down through the chimney pipe to become trapped in our wood stove. I’ve even written about it before: Back in 2022, I recorded the third instance of an unwanted avian visitor. But this spring the problem has reached epic proportions: Since March I’ve freed at least seven birds from the confines of our stove. Once, I released one bird only to immediately hear another when I returned inside. As I type this, there is a bird awaiting release from the stove’s confines, although I freed a bird from the stove only yesterday. 

They are always European starlings. And it has recently occurred to us that they are likely the same two birds, cycling through the bowels of our wood stove over and over again. 

Why? What would cause two starlings to fly repeatedly into a chimney pipe? Wouldn’t they learn after the first couple of times that they’re going to get trapped in there? It’s an enormous world; why keep returning to a dark metal cylinder? 

The answer seems fairly obvious, even if we hadn’t seen them fluttering around the outside of the chimney with straw in their beaks (straw which we later found in the bottom of the stove); even if we hadn’t heard twittering echoing down from the top of the chimney earlier in the spring. Those starlings have built a nest in the top of our chimney. They are raising a family. 

According to the Audubon Society, European starlings are tough, adaptable, and intelligent, which is how they’ve come to occupy most of the North American continent since being imported in 1890. The male starling chooses the nesting site, which is any cavity between 2 to 60 feet above ground. He begins constructing a loose nest of twigs, grass, leaves, and feathers; when his mate joins him, she often completes the nest. Nesting begins in mid-April, during which time the female starling lays 4-6 eggs. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for around 12 days. Both parents feed the hatchlings, who will leave the nest roughly 21 days after hatching. 

Based on my calculations, this means that the starlings may vacate the stove pipe in another couple of weeks — enough time for many more cycles of catch-and-release.  

As I move through these cycles with our dedicated pair of starling parents, it strikes me that this could be an apt metaphor for parenting. 

There is much about parenting that is cyclical — not just the repeated cycles of the daily routine, but the patterns we can find ourselves locked into with our children. We lay down some boundaries, they break through those boundaries, we impose consequences, and equilibrium is restored — for a time. Or a young child suddenly devolves into a gremlin, melting down at mealtimes and screaming at bedtime, only to emerge from this mess having made a major developmental leap and equilibrium is restored — for a time. There are generational cycles, too, in which we suddenly realize that both we and our children are repeating behaviors and replaying scenes from prior generations. 

All that to say: I think I may know what it feels like to plummet down a dark pipe and beat my wings helplessly trying to escape whatever cycle I’m trapped in. 

The solution for the starlings seems so simple: Build your nest someplace else! This chimney pipe is not a good place for you or your babies: Sooner or later, somebody’s going to get hurt! 

It’s too late for this breeding season, of course. But I’ve read that starlings often return to the same nesting sites. 

It can be nearly impossible to recognize the ways in which we contribute to our own imprisonment, these unhealthy cycles in our own lives. We need someone on the outside to wait patiently for us, to gently help free us into the open air, to whisper, “You don’t need to come back here next time around.”

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and two quirky dogs. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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