Western culture is undoubtedly indebted to William Shakespeare. His neologisms expanded and defined the English language and the emotional detail of his characters gave them verisimilitude practically unseen previously in English literature and theater. It is no small wonder that his fans are often ardent, adapting his stories to their own era of time, or dedicating festivals to the performance of his works. Some forays into honoring the legacy of The Bard, however, are far less culturally celebrated than the Ashland Shakespeare Festival or “10 Things I Hate About You.” One such attempt altered the course of natural history: the introduction of the European Starling to the United States and Canada.
Sturnus vulgaris, also called the European or Common Starling, has been quite successful outside of Europe, and the species owes their widespread dispersal to humans. In North America, we can trace the introduction of the species to a precise place, time and culprit: Central Park, New York, 1890, Eugene Schieffelin. Schieffelin may otherwise have been unremembered by the history books: he was a pharmaceutical manufacturer during pharma’s industrial infancy, a sort of “wild west” period where there was little regulation and many people trying their luck. He may not have been especially remarkable one way or the other, just one more person hoping to create the cure-all to end all ailments and become a very rich hero to humanity as a result. Yet Schieffelin was a member of the American Acclimatization Society, a naturalist group whose stated purpose was to spread any flora or fauna deemed useful to humanity across the globe, and this is why we remember him: he released two groups of Starlings in Central Park in 1890, approximately 100 birds total, and North America subsequently changed.
While the historical record can isolate the individual responsible for bringing the European Starling to the United States, the interest in transplanting foreign species was not isolated unto itself. Useful how and to whom is quite debatable, but I digress… This was only one group of many across countries settled by Europeans, the roots of which can be traced several decades earlier to France. What makes Schieffelin’s case curious enough to remember, perhaps, is the legend attached to it: it is said that Schieffelin’s aim was to introduce all of the birds featured in Shakespeare’s plays for aesthetic purposes.
It is worth mentioning that the bird in question appears only once amongst Shakespeare’s lines: “The Common Starling has a walk-on part in Henry IV, Part One, when Harry Hotspur, eager to see his brother-in-law , Mortimer, restored to the favours of the king, announces: ‘I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak/Nothing but “Mortimer”, and give it to him [the king]/To keep his anger still in motion'” (Cocker 461). Shakespeare is referencing the fact that Sturnus vulgaris, like many other members of the family Sturnidae, such as the Common Myna, are excellent vocal mimics. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, they were common cagebirds, valued for their vocal abilities.
If the starling had been introduced with less romantic intentions or if it had settled into its new home more modestly, there is a chance that we might not even discuss its naturalization to North America. Southern California boasts several misplaced parrot populations, birds having escaped menageries and finding the landscape agreeable enough to both survive and proliferate. Small groups, local curiosities, relatively harmless. Starlings, however, have not been but simple pilgrims and humble survivors. A flock of 100 birds has grown to an estimated 200 million in the past century. The species has found similar success within the other countries it was unleashed upon during this era, as well, with similar effect. Starlings are omnivores who eat voraciously, do not build their own nests, but borrow those of other species, and leave behind mass quantities of waste prone to attracting organisms which cause disease.
Starlings are responsible for billions (billions!) of dollars worth of crop loss and their nesting habits not only displace native species but renders nest unusable thereafter. Their tendency to gather in huge, swirling flocks of individual animals, sometimes numbering in the thousands, can be a beautiful spectacle in an area where they are expected and suited to be, such as open fields of grassland. In the middle of an air traffic lane, their presence has resulted in at least two commercial plane crashes, with both human and avian fatalities.
The starlings themselves are not so much a problem in and of themselves as is the swell of their numbers in environments unprepared and unable to truly sustain them. In their native ranges, where the species has been honed, they are often beloved. While they will eat a wide variety of foods, they are primarily insectivores and considered a blessing in many rural fields. Human beings have been raising cattle across the Indo-European supercontinent for so long that the sight of starlings and their cousins near fields of grazing animals is as constant as the sun or moon passing through the sky. There is an Irish proverb that a cow unfollowed by Starlings is likely bewitched, and similar sentiments can be found through many other folk traditions (Chad & Taylor 73). Russia is one of a few country which posts nesting boxes for the birds, encouraging them to roost; free pest control aside, the birds are migrants to Russia, and their songs have been a spring herald for generations (Cocker 474).
It is probably easier to appreciate the beauty of an animal in its true home, where the problems it causes are less dramatic and humans have had more time to learn how to live with it cooperatively, but those of us in North America may want to consider learning to live with our unwitting immigrants, as they may cease to be seen in their homelands. In Europe, particularly in the west, their numbers are dwindling. The United Kingdom considers the Starling a bird of great concern, a species in need of conservation efforts. “Since starlings so closely follow human-altered landscapes, using artificial structures as nest sites and lawns as feeding grounds, things as simple as changes in turf management, new pesticides, and watering regimes could have a large impact on starling foraging success” (Zickefoose 28).
In “civilized” society, we sometimes forget that we are still a part of the natural world. Schieffelin likely intended to impart Old World poetry upon the New World, not introduce a species who would grow to become a destructive giant in a foreign land. Trends in lawn ornamentation aren’t predicated upon how it might affect birds, probably because we don’t think much about birds we see every single day, for centuries. What’s a change in watering practices to a creature we accept as a constant? Sheldon Oberman gorgeously transcribed a book of Jewish folklore, and once such tale is that of King Solomon’s encounter with his Queen’s caged Starling, who asks him for their freedom: “Solomon told the queen that the starling wanted freedom, but she said, ‘I love my starling’s golden songs and shining dark feathers. How can I let it go? I will give it sweeter berries, I will give it a bigger cage. I will place it in a more beautiful room, but I will not set it free’’(Oberman 23). The Starling wanted to live in its natural state, unimpeded by human whims.
The Queen expresses a feeling we often have when faced with a beautiful thing: we will do anything for it, except consider the cost and leave it be. A starling in its summer plumage can seize a heart by its center; slick, oily greens, pearlescent purples and midnight blue, a mouth as yellow as yarrow, singing resplendently enough to have inspired us to try and write its syncopated notes into our own compositions, pale attempts to mimic the mime. To quote Henry IV again, “Well, thus we play the fools with the time, and the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and mock us” (Act II, scene 2, line 154), not unlike the birds. Sturnus vulgaris is creature which has fascinated humans for centuries. It is doubtful that Schiefflin would have bothered with transplanting the species solely, purportedly, for the beauty of Shakespeare’s verse, but that precise detail seems to have been lost to history. The resulting ecological disaster at the hands of man, however, is quite obvious and somehow fitting: Billy, after all, was fond of writing farce.
Chadd, Rachel Warren & Taylor, Marianne. “Birds: Myth, Lore, & Legend.” Bloomsbury Natural History, 2016. (ISBN: )
Cocker, Mark. “Birds and people.” Jonathan Cape, London, 2013. (ISBN: 9780224081740)
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/European_Starling/
Gup, Ted. “100 Years of the Starling,” New York Times. First Printed: September 1st, 1990. Accessed via NY Times web archive: https://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/01/opinion/100-years-of-the-starling.html
National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/e/european-starling/?beta=true
Oberman, Sheldon. “The Starling’s Answer,” from Solomon and the Ant and Other Jewish Folktales. Boyd Mills Press, Inc., 2006. (ISBN: 9781590783078)
Orenstein, Ronald. “Songbirds: Celebrating Nature’s Voices.” Sierra Club Books, 1997. (ISBN: 0871569477)
Walsh, Robin. “A History of The Pharmaceutical Industry,” Pharma Phorum. First Published: October 1st, 2010. https://pharmaphorum.com/articles/a_history_of_the_pharmaceutical_industry/
Zickefoose, Julie. “The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. (ISBN: 9780547003092)
Zielinski, Sarah. “The Invasive Species We Can Blame on Shakespeare,” Smithsonian.com. First Published: October 4th, 2011.
Review by A.S.