The Starling Variable
21 August 2003
By rights I shouldn't be giving you this story, as I'm dead and my feathery, brown chest is stone cold. Don't tell!
"Mr L---?" An elderly gentleman, par for the course in this part of Oxford, opened the door. He nodded, "And you?"
I introduced myself, usual stuff. Physicist just finished my Finals, trying to make a bit of cash to tide me over by freelancing for the papers, chasing up on something that could have a bit of local interest.
I'd found a postcard tucked into a book in the RSL stacks, right down in the basement. Postmarked 1956, addressed to L---, with what looked like a pirate's treasure map drawn on it. Labelled, in copperplate, "The Starling Variable". An illustration of a starling on the front, pen and ink.
Who knows, forgotten student prank probably, and I would've forgotten it too except I'd run across a book of that title a month or two before, misplaced amongst the old Optics textbooks. I'd left it under a pile of paper during revision, to read later -- and now it came to mind.
The book itself was pretty weird. Rev someone or other, late 1800s, a rantish tract on the perfection of Creation. Reading between the lines it seemed the Reverend had, in his confused way, been onto something. The same themes were echoed by modern day pseudo scientists. Crackpots, mainly, I didn't have much time for Bohm or Lovelock or their followers, especially not when it came to leaflets called "Challenge Your Perceptions!!" and the like, but I'd read my fair share before dismissing it like a sensible undergraduate.
Our Rev argued (well, declared without support, really) that God's plan was visible in all things. He pointed out - repetitively - the way animals were perfectly in sync with the seasons, squirrels keeping food back, birds flying south for the winter and so on. Dogs, on the other hand, did not bury nuts because they were looked after by people. In fact, he said, it was all so interlocked that you could deduce from dogs not burying food that their preferred diet would be available even when all plantlife was blanketed in snow.
Ironic, of course, that there is no escape from the cold for us birds now.
From the habits of cattle coming to be milked every morning, he said, one could postulate the farmer, the milkers, milk markets and the railways, children drinking it and so on and so forth. From the wings and muscles of one of Darwin's finches, wind and lift. And all of this such a well-balanced machine, proof of God and His wisdom: Darwin was wrong because the first winter a squirrel faced would kill them all, even before they somehow learned what to do.
It was all a bit Gaia for me, but the Rev's premise intrigued me. We could trace back the mechanics of the machine and learn the mind of God. By a series of deductions we could know the Starling Variable, the number of extant starlings on the European continent. This would determine the number of insects, the lengths of winters, the directions of the winds and how long they blew.
I'd read similar comments on the Web and in less wacky publications. Popper talked about genetic expectations, the idea of "winter" built in to the changing coats of mammals, into the instincts of birds, into the genes. Maybe there was something in this.
But this postcard seemed to imply a location for this number, which was all a bit strange.
Still, local interest, a bit of backstory and a pirate's treasure. Should be good for a few quid. So off to L---'s I went, and gave him the low-down.
Well what happened next is the second oddest thing that ever happened to me, and what happened almost a year after that the oddest bar nothing, as well as being the penultimate thing that ever happened to any of us.
Apart from me telling you this story that is -- which isn't happening, because, as I've hinted, we're all dead, and all floating in space in the orbit of the Earth. But letting that stop us wouldn't be any fun, would it?
We went into the old man's garden, counted the requisite number of paces, dug down a little over a foot (feeling pretty silly, I must admit) and found buried there a solid, roughly hewn stone block with a rectangular brass face on the top. If we'd brushed and picked the soil out, a small slider would be able to move from one end to the other. It was labelled, with another brass plate:
The Starling Variable.
More than a bit taken aback I fiddled with the knob a bit, quizzed L--- for the remainder of the afternoon, but he skirted any direct answers and clammed up when I asked him directly. He seemed to know of the book, but it's difficult to tell with old men, especially old men who don't get much company. When I brought out the card he shut up completely and wouldn't talk about anything but the weather. Cutting my losses, I left and didn't give it a moment's serious thought. Although my pub anecdotes were particularly good for a while...
...and it was during one of them, the aforementioned almost-a-year-later, that a biologist friend mentioned an article she'd read in New Scientist: that the European starling population had taken a sudden plunge, and they had no idea what'd caused it.
The Reverend's book came flooding back to me. L---'s quiet smile now seemed less senile and more secretive. What had he been hiding?
Oxford, the next weekend, was a crisp blue day, but the quads of yellow stone held none of their usual feeling of homecoming. The buses were nose-to-tail in the Saturday traffic so I half walked, half jogged up the Banbury Road.
L--- had died that morning. I turned up at his house out of breath and sweating, full of questions. Fully geared up to refuse to leave the old man's house until he told me what was going on, it was a shock to find an ambulance outside and his carer beginning to sort through papers. More frustrating, actually.
And there, on his desk - I went in to talk - was a well looked-after copy of The Starling Variable, a photocopy of the very same New Scientist article, and my name from a year before! Astounded, I almost dropped my tea. Even the nurse - their type usually a model of calm whatever the surprise - raised her eyebrows.
We went outside.
The soil over the rock and brass plate was still a little loose. I picked gravel and mud from the slider with my fingernails, seeing the discolouration of the metal where we'd managed to budge the knob a little a year before. I had to put it back. I pulled, it was well stuck. My nails ached, soil pushed up underneath them, and the tips of my fingers rubbed raw before I got the thing to move. Annoyed I gave the knob a real shove, must've dislodged whatever grain was sticking and it slammed right down the groove before I could stop it, right to the end.
In a second, the air filled with birdsong, the number of birds doubling and redoubling, blocking out the sun. As it darkened I saw a clod of mud burst wings, and the tips of a hundred blades of grass opened into squawking mouths. Then there was a tickle that spread all down my throat as it, my body, turned to feathers, and I transformed into a hundred more.
Then the loudest sound you can possibly imagine, as every last grain of matter of the earth, every house, every kidney, every lump of coal, every drop of molten magma burst into life, became beaked and bright eyed, and each new starling simultaneously beat its wings, a boom:
Once. And then the cold of space flooded in, the feathers froze, and we all died all at once. A trillion, trillion starling hearts stilled seconds after their birth, a single icy swarm, together for ever, where the world used to be.