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Brian Collier, Teach the Starlings
Brian D. Collier
Brian D. Collier
Primary vector of Schieffelin-saying starlings and architect of the Teach the Starlings program
(Photo by Kristin Dykstra 2004)

Learn about our other concurrent exhibit: Wonderland

For years I have fed the wild birds in my backyard, but I don’t know very much about them. I like to say that my hobby has less to do with ornithology than with Starlings Using Teaching Feeder 1, Digital Print, 2005
Starling Using
Teaching Feeder 1

Archival Digital Print
neatly pouring seeds into cylindrical containers and hanging them from trees. It’s a joke, but not really.

For better or for worse, my uncomplicated relationship with birds changed last year, and I have Brian D. Collier to thank or perhaps to blame for it. I had met Brian in 2004, when I included three of his classification pieces in an exhibition I organized. I was instantly enthralled by the funny, sly, subversive beauty of Brian’s work and its distinctive use of environmentalism, alert observation, conceptual art, cabinetmaking and the aesthetic of science.

Champaign Illinois Flock 1, Digital Print, 2005
Champaign Illinois
Flock 1

Arcival Digital Print
During a 2004 visit to Brian’s studio, he showed me his I’ll Have a Starling, a work on Eugene Schieffelin’s introduction of the European starling into North America. In 1890 and 1891, Schieffelin, a theater aficionado, released about 100 starlings in New York’s Central Park, reasoning badly that every species of bird mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare should be represented in American skies. He tried to establish various bullfinches, nightingale, and skylarks in Manhattan, all of which failed to multiply, but his freed starlings set about nesting, mating and colonizing the continent as if they had just paid cash for it. Within a century, they had spread across the entirety of the United States, through most of Canada and Mexico, and they’re currently eyeing Central America and a few Caribbean islands as well. Their population in the Western Hemisphere is estimated to be upwards of 200 million birds. Not only are starlings adaptive, they are clever birds that can be taught to mimic sounds, including small vocabularies of human speech. It’s the species’ talent for mimicry that is at the conceptual heart of Brian’s Teach the Starlings, another work inspired by the misguided Schieffelin. Through printed handouts and postings on the Web component of the piece, Brian has begun to solicit volunteers, who he urges to shout the name “Schieffelin!” anytime they encounter a starling or better yet a flock of them. He hopes that the birds who hear and learn the name will in turn teach other starlings to say it as well. For Brian, altering the call of the European starling to a shrieking “Schieffelin!” would serve as a ubiquitous reminder that even seemingly innocuous acts of human intervention can have devastating consequences on biodiversity and whole ecosystems.

Gallery Exhibit
Gallery Exhibit
On my way home from Brian’s studio, I found myself shouting at starlings out the window of my car. I yelled at the starlings in my yard, at work, at my favorite restaurant. And then fate took a hand. Just weeks after learning about Brian’s project, my wife discovered an abandoned young starling that had fallen out of the sycamore tree next to our house. It was active and eager to see the world, but he clearly required a few more days of nurturing before he was ready to take his place in the greater population. Naturally (or perhaps not), we called the little guy Schieffelin.

The few days we thought Schieffelin required to become a mature starling turned into four weeks, half of which he spent with us and the other half with Brian and his wife Kristin. Regardless of who was feeding him, we tenderly repeated “Schieffelin, Schieffelin, Schieffelin” to our young ward, as we dangled each tasty bit of wriggling protein over his gaping maw, reinforcing the name we so wished to hear him say.

Gallery Exhibit
Gallery Exhibit
Sure, we were training Schieffelin, but we also wanted him to be free and to eventually soar among his own kind. By his fourth week with us, he was becoming increasingly independent. He no longer cared to spend his nights in the safety of the makeshift aviaries Brian and I both built in our respective backyards, and his once-hourly meal visits dwindled to fewer than three per day. He would still do zany tricks, like landing on our heads and sprinting to the car like a Labrador retriever anytime we pulled into the driveway, but we saw less and less of him. The last evening he visited, Schieffelin landed on our back porch for a quick dinner, spread his grown-up wings, and flew away like the confident wild bird we had wanted him to become. We shouted, “Goodbye, Schieffelin,” but he didn’t answer.

These days, as I drive through the harvested cornfields of downstate Illinois, I see vast flocks of starlings, maneuvering in uncanny unison. I still shout “Schieffelin, Schieffelin!” hoping some will answer back, hoping they have learned the call from
a mutual friend. In my most fanciful yearnings, I see young Schieffelin as the King of the Starlings, ruling Midwestern skies. But in other dreams, he returns to us and becomes Brian’s feathery collaborator; together, they take Teach the Starlings to unimagined levels of critical and popular success. There they are in ArtForum, on Oprah, the Nightly News, NPR, Animal Planet.

For all its formal complexity and conceptual brilliance, the wonder of Teach the Starlings derives not from what Schieffelin or the other birds might learn, but from what Brian is teaching us. Shrewdly, it is our behavior he is conditioning more than that of any starling, awakening in us an environmental awareness so that each time we call out Schieffelin!” we remember why we’re doing it — whether we’re answered or not. Schieffelin!

Kevin Sharp
Director of Visual Arts
Cedarhurst Center for the Arts
Mt. Vernon, Illinois


Learn about our other concurrent exhibit: Wonderland