Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

The View from Mudsock Heights: Feather-Shaped Soot Marks on My Wall

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 5:42 AM

Somebody’s bright idea is banging around in my chimney right now, and lest there be any doubt, I don’t much like it.

The “somebody” was a well-intentioned moron name of Eugene Schieffelin, who lived in Brooklyn, New York. He liked Shakespeare, who he apparently thought he would honor by bringing to the U.S. and releasing starlings, mentioned by the Bard of Avon and not native to North America. Whatever Schieffelin’s reason, he did in fact import and release the birds in Central Park in 1890.

From those modest beginnings — he turned loose 100 of the birds — there are now 200 million of the things in this country. One of which is throwing a fit in the stovepipe right behind me. This is the third time in the last 10 days it has happened. I do not know if it is the same one or if all starlings are stupid.

The first time — I admit it — was an adventure. It was early in the morning and there was scratching and banging in the chimney. What could it be?

Of the many birds and critters found hereabouts, some are cute and worthy of keeping around; some are useful and likewise worth encouraging; and some the world would probably be better off without. I have a fondness for flying squirrels, not much affection for ordinary squirrels, and have come truly to dislike chipmunks. (Sorry, but I’d reverse my view if they would learn to stay outside.) Rats and mice? Nope.

There are lots of birds I like, as well, but they do not include the introduced species such as English sparrows and the miserable starling.

That first chimnaic ruckus was a puzzle, and a concern. The only way to solve it was to open the damper, which might allow the creature to drop into the stove itself and let me see it through the glass panels in the door. Problem was, this would commit me to capturing what might have been an animal I didn’t much like and would have a hard time catching.

There was no choice. Besides: it might be a little owl or a barn swallow or something else toward which I have only warm feelings. A bluebird, maybe.

It was, of course, the first of the starlings (or the only one’s first visit — maybe I should band the things). I tried to reach in and catch it, but failed.

Because it runs counter to the air of dignity and wisdom I try with less and less success to impart, I shall not here give the details of my chasing the soot-covered bird around the house, nor the cleanup afterwards. It did finally depart, alive, out the back door.

I don’t think I’ll describe the second event, three days later, either. The first incident had not proved instructive. At least the first time the bird took off as if it wished never to see my residence or any residence ever again; the second time, the bird seemed to want to hang around.

Now there’s another one, or the same one having decided that it’s a really entertaining game. I do not expect dramatically different results. I do not look forward to finding out.

It will get resolved without the solution proposed by the darker angels of my nature, which is to build a fire.

Once was interesting, twice was coincidence, but three times is a trend, so I’ll need to take some of the hardware cloth left over from my phoebe nest-prevention project (which worked — I’ve screened off the beams on the back porch and my newly refinished porch swing is now poop-free) and make a screen for the top of the chimney. This is simple in concept but probably not entirely easy in execution. I’ll need to keep an eye on it to make sure that if I have any more fires this season it doesn’t get all sooted up and hinder the chimney’s draw.

And all the while I shall ponder how it is almost without exception a very bad idea to introduce new species. The starlings have harmed the populations of native, non-chimney-dwelling, birds. The sparrows have competed for nesting spots with nice, desirable birds such as bluebirds and wrens — and, yes, phoebes. In places like Florida, non-native species have driven the native birds almost to the point of extinction.

There is much talk of environmental damage that we may have done, and much of that talk is highly speculative. One place where there can be no doubt is the harm that has come from introducing new species. Sometimes, like the song about the old lady who swallowed the fly, then the spider, and so on, it has come in an attempt to relieve a problem we created earlier. It practically never works.
As I shall remember this summer, when the thousands of starlings in the trees drown out even the cicadas. And now, when I have to get one out of the stove.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at

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1 comments posted so far.

Re: The View from Mudsock Heights: Feather-Shaped Soot Marks on My Wall

Around our parts we use various sizes of wire mesh to keep the critters out of stove piping.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Feb 19, 2009 | 11:58 PM