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The Devil Wears Feathers

orace Van Steenburg was the father of one of my friends, Delbert Van Steenburg in high school. I addressed him in person as Doctor Van Steenburg, although when Delbert and I spoke of his father in private, we had other names for him. We often called him the Mad Hatter. At other times, we dubbed him Gyro Gearloose, the name of a Disney character in the old Donald Duck cartoons. The elder Van Steenburg did, in fact, bear a striking resemblance to Disney’s mad-duck inventor, both in outward appearance and deranged obsession. I can still see him running around his shop in the garage, his spectacles hanging sideways off his face, arms flailing, all the while spewing profane expletives about the unsolicited curse of his genius.

Like Gyro Gearloose, Horace Van Steenburg’s obsession was fixed on invention. In Horace’s particular case, the obsession consisted of his ceaseless, maniacal attempt to build a trap -- a trap that would turn out to be the quintessential capture device leading to the ultimate and eternal destruction and elimination of Sturnus vulgaris -- see photo.

For anyone who might happen to be unfamiliar with Latin, Sturnus vulgaris refers to the genus and species of the common starling, a bird somewhat resembling a blackbird, otherwise referred to as a “passerine” bird, meaning that it is a perching bird and/or a songbird.

Dr. Horace Van Steenburg, being the Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture for our county, was a man of considerable and accredited learning -- -simultaneously biological, scientific, liberal, and applied. The very notion of something as despicable, depredating, and dastardly as a common starling being able to produce “song” caused him to foam at the mouth while he threatened to “capture and decapitate every last one of those vile, feathered miscreants!”

Horace had been forced to witness the population of foreign, invasive starlings swell to over a quarter million in his county alone over the span of a very few years. The ravenous and highly prolific birds continued to cause considerable and costly damage to agricultural crops under his supervision. Not to mention the runny, putrid, liquid that occasionally splattered his bald head when a large flock of starlings flew over him.

Needless to say, Horace wasn’t pleased to hear that Mozart had kept a starling as a pet, the bird being able to sing an impressive portion of his Concert in G Major. Mozart was so taken by the starling that when it died, he gave it an elaborate funeral.

“That’s insane!” Van Steenburg roared. “Do you realize that a flock of starlings stopped the hands on London’s Big Ben in 1949! Do you realize that from a mere 60 of the ruinous, invasive villains turned loose in New York’s Central Park in 1890, we now have over 300 million in America alone! All because some literary harebrain wanted to have every songbird mentioned in Shakespeare’s scripts released in our country! Do you realize those rotten, depredating, pests have caused me countless, sleepless nights and given me gnawing, gastric discomfort leading to a painful, duodenal ulcer!” A large flock of starlings flew into the engines of a passenger jet near Boston recently, causing the death of 62 passengers when it crashed!”

As I recall, Horace said all of the above in one, long breath.

On the other side of the coin, had Mr. Van Steenburg lived long enough, he would have been delighted to hear that the birds are hunted as food for the table in Spain, although it is said that their meat is tougher than boot leather and also requires a plethora of strong seasonings to overcome its foul flavor. He would have been further pleased to hear that starlings have been classified as being “of least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and currently rank high on the List of the World’s 100 Worst Invasive Species.

In America alone, 1.7 million starlings were shot, trapped, and poisoned in 2008.

The current population in the United States is estimated to be well over 140 million.

Although he never gave up experimenting with his inventions, Horace Van Steenburg managed to capture only a few dozen starlings over the years. He went to his reward bearing the stain and humiliation of his failure to build the perfect starling trap. His tombstone rests under the cover of a protective, metal roof. Some of his last words were “I’d be turning over in my casket if there was starling feces on my grave marker”.

Sometimes when I’m faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, I think of Horace. Not of his failure, but of his perseverance and determination. And his obsession, which in the sentimentality of memory I prefer to think of as passion. Thanks to Horace, when I remember him it helps me to continue the march.

Not a bad legacy after all.

Don E. Webster has been engaged in a wide variety of outdoor pursuits for over 60 years. His recently published book, Bury Me In My Waders -- An Old Duck Hunter Recalls His Fowl Past, currently ranks among the most popular, best-selling duck hunting books on Amazon Books and Amazon Kindle. His next book, “Double-Ought Buck” a novel, will be available in December. Webster was the recipient of the 2013 Phil Ford Humor Award from the Outdoor Writer’s Association of California for his hilarious description of hunting dogs in his MyOutdoorBuddy column entitled “Canine Comics.” Don's website is


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