The invasive starling

Yesterday’s Rhymes With Orange::


Two things here. One, the fact that English has both riffle through and rifle through, with different histories, but with very similar pronunciations (riffle with /ɪ/, rifle with /aj/) and very similar meanings. But both endure. In the case of the cartoon, I would have said riffle, but it all turns on the starling’s intentions in going through that underwear drawer.

And two, how we are to understand invasive. And that takes us into a great morass of uses for this word and for the word alien, the starling being an alien species in North America, in the technical sense that it is not a species native to the continent, but was introduced from abroad.

Riffle and rifle. The verb riffle is relatively recent. OED3 (June 2010) has:

Of wind, a storm, etc.: to affect badly or harmfully; spec. (in later use) to strip (a house) of a roof covering; to strip (slates, tiles, etc.) in this way [first cite 1713]

And then the sense relevant here:

To flick through (papers, books, etc.); to thumb (a block of paper, a book, etc.), releasing the leaves in (usually rapid) succession [first cite 1876]

The brief NOAD2 version:

(riffle through) search quickly through(something), especially so as to cause disorder: she riffled through her leather handbag

With riffle, the cartoon would have the starling merely searching through the underwear drawer, perhaps out of curiousity, perhaps with the additional intent of making something of a mess in the process.

The verb rifle with through goes much further back, to about 1400, to a verb of plundering and robbing. Relevant early senses for transitive rifle:

1. To carry off as booty; to plunder; to steal. Also fig.[first cite c1391]

a. To plunder or rob (a person) in a thorough manner, esp. by searching his or her pockets or clothes; to search (a person) thoroughly with intent to rob. [first cite a1400]

b. To ransack or search (a receptacle, compartment, etc.) thoroughly, esp. in order to take what is valuable [first cite c1400]

c. To rob or strip bare of something. Also in figurative contexts. [first cite c1400]

Then comes the intransitive use in the cartoon — intransitive because the object of rifle is oblique, marked by through, rather than direct:

3. b. To make a vigorous or thorough search through something, esp. with intent to take or steal. [first cite 1894]

So the question about the starling is whether it had any intent to steal things from it. Such an intent isn’t visible in the cartoon, where the starling is absorbed in reading the diary, having been through the underwear drawer.

Invasiveness. The earlier, and still central, sense of the English verb invade is military. From NOAD2:

(of an armed force or its commander) enter (a country or region) so as to subjugate or occupy it: it was all part of a grander French plan to invade Ireland | [no obj.]: they would invade at dawn.

This serves as the basis for a metaphorical extension:

enter (a place, situation, or sphere of activity) in large numbers, especially with intrusive effect: demonstrators invaded the presidential palace.

This is my usage in talking about invasive plants, which are given to expanding their territory and overwhelming their neighbors in one way or another. There are

vegetative invasives:

– vining invasives, which smother other plants

– invasives by division

– creeping invasives, via underground roots or surface runners

seedy invasives:

– freely self-seeding plants

– seeds spread by creatures (especially birds)

suppressives, which spread by chemically suppressing the growth of other plants

(I’ve already posted on examples of a number of these types, and have postings in preparation on others.)

A significant number of pest plants wield several of these weapons at once.

Plant invasiveness comes in degrees. In my Ohio garden, I was happy to grow many invasives, but prevented them from overwhelming other plants, but there were also invasive monster plants, almost impossible to control short of nuking.

Plant invasiveness is also highly contextual: a plant that is destructively invasive in one place might be relatively tame in another and even threatened or endangered in still others. A monster in Hawaii might be fragile in Nova Scotia.

Introduced plants are often invasive, simply because they have no sturdy native competitors or no native animal predators. But some introduced plants are well-behaved ornamentals, and some are merely inoffensive weeds, inclined to grow in waste places and the like — or they’re just ugly. And some native plants (like poison ivy) are inclined to be invasive.

These remarks extend to invasive animals and birds, including native creatures like deer, crows, and Canada geese that have become invasive in some areas of North America.

Back to the cartoon. The common, or European, starling (Sturnus vulgaris), a species of thrush, is in fact, invasive in stretches of North America, congregating in huge noisy flocks, fouling the landscape with their droppings, and driving away other birds. Pretty as individuals —


— but not en masse. In addition, unlike crows and magpies and some other birds that are known to be highly curious (and, indeed, “smart”), I believe that an individual starling is unlikely to wander in a window to explore its contents, the way the starling in the cartoon does.

Contending senses. The Wikipedia article starts out by wrapping invasiness and non-nativeness into a single package:

An invasive species is a plant or animal that is not native to a specific location (an introduced species); and has a tendency to spread, which is believed to cause damage to the environment, human economy and/or human health.

This is relevant to Sturnus vulgaris, because it is not only invasive but also famously non-native, deliberately introduced to the U.S. from Europe.

The Wikipedia article goes on to look more neutrally at the usage of invasive as applied to plants and animals:

One study pointed out widely divergent perceptions of the criteria for invasive species among researchers and concerns with the subjectivity of the term “invasive”.

– The term as most often used applies to introduced species (also called “non-indigenous” or “non-native” [or “alien” or “exotic”]) that adversely affect the habitats and bioregions they invade economically, environmentally, and/or ecologically. Such invasive species may be either plants or animals and may disrupt by dominating a region, wilderness areas, particular habitats, or wildland-urban interface land from loss of natural controls (such as predators or herbivores). This includes non-native invasive plant species labeled as exotic pest plants and invasive exotics growing in native plant communities. It has been used in this sense by government organizations as well as conservation groups such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the California Native Plant Society. The European Union defines “Invasive Alien Species” as those that are, firstly, outside their natural distribution area, and secondly, threaten biological diversity. It is also used by land managers, botanists, researchers, horticulturalists, conservationists, and the public for noxious weeds. The kudzu vine (Pueraria lobata), Andean Pampas grass (Cortaderia jubata), and yellow starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis) are examples.

– An alternate usage broadens the term to include indigenous or “native” species along with non-native species, that have colonized natural areas. Deer are an example, considered to be overpopulating their native zones and adjacent suburban gardens, by some in the Northeastern and Pacific Coast regions of the United States.

– Sometimes the term is used to describe a non-native or introduced species that has become widespread. However, not every introduced species has adverse effects on the environment. A nonadverse example is the common goldfish (Carassius auratus), which is found throughout the United States, but rarely achieves high densities..

In any case, invasiveness and not-nativeness are now widely packaged together, a move that encourages people to think that alien plants and animals are also wicked, because they are invasive (they will take over the place). It will not have escaped your notice that this mode of thought is all over the place in current political discourse, where aliens (non-native people, especially migrants) are viewed as dangerous invaders.

For another day, back on the plant front, we should take a look at a September 2015 article in Harper’s, “Weed Whackers: Monsanto, glyphosphate, and the war on invasive species”, by Andrew Cockburn.

[Added later. From Benita Bendon Campbell, a pointer to a children’s book I knew nothing about, Arnie, the Darling Starling, by Margarete Sigl Corbo and Diane Marie Barras (1983):


(The title combines the rhyme in darling … starling with a half-rhyme in the name Arnie. And, no, no one who knows me at all calls me Arnie. I have friends named Arnold who are nicknamed Arnie, and that’s fine for them, but it doesn’t work for me.)

The publisher’s (wildly effusive) blurb on

The true story of a talking starling and the grandmother who raised him is as heartwarming a book as you will ever read. When Margarete first came upon Arnie, he was just a familiar springtime sight: a baby bird lying helpless in the daisy patch. After unseuccesfully trying to return him to his nest, she took him into her Texas home and raised him as carefully as she had raised her own child, teaching him to perch, to fly, even to talk. Arnie resisted all attempts to restore him to the wild, preferring steak and canned corn to worms, which frightened him, and even developing a taste for wine. Arnie is full of life, laughter, and love. It is a completely irrestible book.

There are videos of “talking” starlings: caged birds that have been taught to imitate a number of phrases.]

One Response to “The invasive starling”

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