"SHEEF-lin," say the starlings. "SHEEF-lin."
In his art installation "Teach the Starlings," Brian Collier, a 36-year-old Illinois environmentalist and artist, is training starlings here to repeat the last name of the man who introduced the invasive species to North America more than 100 years ago.
His project is aimed at raising awareness about invasive species, and his next bird-training device is due to be tacked to a tree in North Adams this month. The work is on display at the Contemporary Artists' Center in North Adams through July 23 as part of an exhibition titled, "Back to Nature."
Hoping to populate the United States with every bird referenced in the works of William Shakespeare, Eugene Shieffelin (pronounced "SHEEF-lin") released approximately 60 European starlings into New York City's Central Park in 1890. He was a member of the Acclimation Society of North America, a group that seeded the continent with slices of English culture.
The starlings thrived in their new North American habitat, and the U.S.government now considers the bird breed invasive.
"Starlings are really aggressive cavity nesters," said Collier, now a burgeoning starling expert.
In essence, the starlings take over the nests of other birds.
"I've seen battles between starlings and other birds in my back yard," he said.
The Gulf State Marine Fisheries Commission says that redheaded woodpeckers, bluebirds, flickers and crested flycatchers are the most common victims of starlings in their search for prefab nests. Starlings, which can travel in sun-blocking flocks, also may devastate farmland by eating seeds and young plants.
Environmentalist Edward O'Wilson's work, "The Future of Life," reprinted in 2003, led Collier to discover Shieffelin's story and to initiate his "Teach the Starlings" project.
"A lot of people are turned off by the term 'environmentalist,' " Collier said, "So I think that sometimes you have to use humor or role play to get the broader population to think about these issues."
Collier's interpretation of O'Wilson's message began with a modified suet feeder and birdhouse. The artist wired voice recording and replaying equipment to a motion sensor. Every time a bird visits the feeder or enters the box, the device plays the name "Shieffelin."
"Most people think I'm a nut," said Collier, who agreed that the sound quality of some of the recordings needs to improve.
However, starlings do mimic sounds in nature and have no distinctive song of their own. Pet starlings can pick up human words the same as parrots do.
"What we really need to do is have people train starlings in their homes and then release them," Collier said.
The artist baby-sat a young starling for two months and attempted to teach the bird to say "Shieffelin." The starling failed to do more than babble the appropriate amount of syllables.
"Starlings learn words in a way that's similar to human babies," Collier said, "It takes several months."
The batteries in his teaching devices can last up to a year and a half, and he said he may construct a solar-powered model.
"It's definitely haunting," he said of his project's intentions. "But I'm not saying I'm better than everyone else. I'm implicating myself. I think it's really important to raise public interest about invasive species."
Collier is working in his Illinois studio and said he does not plan to visit North Adams. His next project will examine the effects of garlic mustard, an invasive plant.