Pittsburgh has not always been the site of three rivers. We used to be the shore of an inland sea, similar to the Persian Gulf, that lapped at our doorsteps.
But that was long, long ago. We haven’t been at the beach for 300 million years.
Without an ocean, or even a large lake, sandpipers are a rare sight in Pittsburgh. We never see huge flocks of shorebirds poking their beaks in the mud and flying in squadrons.
In the winter, though, we have a land-based substitute: European starlings that visit in great numbers.
I know it’s a stretch to compare starlings to shorebirds but consider the similarities.
Starlings fly in synchronous flocks called murmurations that bank and turn in unison like shorebirds. When threatened by a predator, the flocks form a tight ball even more impressive than the gyrations of shorebirds under siege.
When they’re not trying to stay together starlings, like shorebirds, fly in a big loose bunch.
When feeding in flocks, starlings swarm across a field probing the ground for food. In the spring, they advance in a front across my backyard like a mass of red knots or dunlin at the beach.
Starlings are about the same size as dunlin and like many shorebirds, have relatively short wings and tails.
But there my ability to draw similarities ends.
Much as I’d like it, Pittsburgh is not at the ocean and starlings are not shorebirds. The best I can do is to think of them as “Land-pipers.”
(photo by “Mr. T in DC” via Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)
p.s. Here’s a BBC video of 5 million starlings in Rome or click here to see a prize-winning photo of a flock evading a peregrine in Italy.