A flock of starlings nests in the big oak and eucalyptus trees on our farm. They are not easily seen up there, but as the birds call out to each other, that quick high-pitched squeaking sound from hundreds of little beaks reveals their presence to a trained ear. Like many species, starlings eat, sleep, and travel together in flocks. When it’s time to change locations, a couple of birds take off and the others follow. They travel over the farm like a swarm of insects, swooping up and down, to the left or right in a fluid motion—the color of the three-dimensional mass changing with the density of the flock and angle of the light.
Such a flock is entertaining, even graceful or spooky to watch as the birds fly around the farm. However, the warm fuzzy feeling fades as quickly as the mass can settle into the orchards of fruit or fields of new transplants. These non-native birds have a passion for perfectly ripe produce and an ability to find the very fruit that would meet the quality standards of a good produce buyer. As soon as a fig or peach is ready to harvest, the little devils gut the fruit, ruining it for human consumption, so our harvest crews have strict orders to beat the birds in the race to the mature crops. My brother and I get annoyed enough that we organize starling hunts. Many boxes of shotgun shells later, the flock only looks stronger.
I have come to realize that starlings are smart beasts. This past summer we installed a bird cannon (to simulate the shooting of a gun) to scare them from the grapes. It worked for about a day before the starlings learned to recognize its sound and rhythm. I think that the flock is even smart enough to recognize the difference between a human walking and a human walking with a gun.
In early September, as I was inspecting the progress of the hoeing crew that was following the tractor through our fennel field, I saw that the uprooted weeds had yielded an insect population left with no home. It was no surprise to find a flock of starlings in those beds. The birds were jumping around chasing down dinner before settling into an evening of gossiping in the tall oak trees. They noticed that I was unarmed and paid little attention to my presence—at best they were courteous enough to hop out of my way. I wondered for a moment if the birds were eating good or bad bugs but quickly moved on to imagining how great it would be if the starlings and I could make a deal—they get to enjoy an unlimited supply of fresh fruit in peace in exchange for pest termination services. This is the type of thing that I ponder as I make my rounds inspecting our fields—the ruminations of an organic farmer at work.
|Thaddeus Barsotti is a secondgeneration organic farmer in the Capay Valley. He and his three brothers grow over 60 different fruit and vegetable varieties on their farm, Capay Organic, founded in 1976. Their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, Farm Fresh To You, delivers fresh, organic produce directly to Bay
Area doorsteps. To learn more, visit farmfreshtoyou.com or call the farm at 800.796.6009. San Francisco artist
Kay Bradner’s paintings of boats, sails, fruit, children and ducks are all informed by her New England country start in Massachusetts on a lake with five brothers and many animals. Bradner came to California in the 1960s to study printmaking at California College of the Arts. Her paintings on aluminum are inventive translations of the language of