How Shakespeare influenced the introduction of one of America’s most widespread bird species

Starling (Public Domain)

March 6, 1890. The starling is released in Central Park, an invasive species brought over from Europe by a New Yorker named Eugene Scheiffelin. It was a love of Shakespeare that caused this enthusiast to introduce one of America’s greatest pests to continent.

When Eugene Schieffelin introduced 60 European starlings into New York’s Central Park as part of his ambition to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare to North America, he probably didn’t assess the damage liability.

Born in 1827, and the son of a prominent New York lawyer born into one Manhattan’s oldest families, Schieffelin was a drug manufacturer and amateur ornithologist with links to the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, and the New York Zoological Society. A Shakespeare enthusiast, he was also a founding member of the American Acclimatization Society, a group that aimed to help exchange plants and animals from one part of the world to another.

Victorian societies such as the American Acclimatization Society were fashionable in the late 1900s, but the scientific effects of introducing a non-native species to an ecosystem were not yet known. But after Schieffelin’s death 16 years later in 1906, these effects were to become known.

Indeed, it wasn’t the first time Schieffelin had introduced a non-native avian species to the US. 30 years earlier, he sponsored the introduction of the house sparrow to North America. They are now an estimated 540 million house sparrows in North America! And after the initial release of 60 starlings in 1890, Scheiffelin released a further 40 in 1891. He wanted them to stay…and they did.

Initially, the birds stayed within the realms of Central Park. When the first nesting pair were discovered in the eaves of the Museum of Natural History in 1896, people rejoiced. But the starling was soon to become a menace as it spread across the US, up to Alaska, down to Mexico, today numbering an estimated 200 million.

But why such a menace? Well, the introduction of this non-native species has come at the expense of many native birds that compete for nesting holes in trees. They have had a major impact on the US economy and ecosystem, and have even caused human deaths by nesting in aircraft, among other places.

For the Schieffelin, the project was down to two things: a love of Shakespeare, and a love of birds. When he opened that cage on that cold day in 1890, he probably couldn’t have estimated the impact his endeavour was to have on the continent.

But as numbers spread, so did novel methods to contain the starlings. In Hartford, Connecticut in 1914, residents tried scaring the birds away by tying teddy bears to the tree starlings were nesting in, and firing rockets through the branches. Over 30 years later, with numbers greater than ever, in 1948 the superintendent of sanitation in Washington, D.C., tried using artificial owls to scare away the birds, and when that didn’t work, he put itching powder on the trees to keep them out.

And the starling even made it’s way to the White House. The White House tried speakers that emitted owl calls. The famous columns of the House were fitted with electrified wires to discourage starlings from roosting in it.

But nothing worked. Soon they were expanding right across to the West Coast – in their MILLIONS. And they were taking their toll of human life, too. In October4, 1960, a Lockheed Electra plummeted seconds after taking off from Logan Airport in Boston, killing 62 people in what is to date America’s worst bird-strike. Some 10,000 starlings had flown straight into the plane, crippling its engines.

Today, from Alaska right down to Mexico, it’s believed that there are over 200 million starlings in North America – and it’s all down to one man and his love of literature.

What about Schieffelin’s endeavour to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare to the US? Well, his attempts to introduce bullfinches, chaffinches, song thrushes, nightingales, and skylarks were not so successful. They didn’t have the same staying power as starlings.

On the 100th anniversary of the introduction, the New York Times said Schieffelin’smotives were as romantic as they were ill fated.He probably couldn’t have estimated their drastic impact of ecology and human life. But the legacy of his feat is phenomenal.

Further Reading:

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2 thoughts on “How Shakespeare influenced the introduction of one of America’s most widespread bird species

  1. The Victorian and Edwardian period is fascinating (if not sad) to study for all of the human-led ecological changes! I am always shocked that they had no idea that introducing a non-native species would have an effect on the ecosystem- it is just crazy haha. At least we have learned for the future!

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