The Starlings of New York
In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin, an eccentric pharmaceurical manufactuer, released 60 European starlings into New York’s Cenral Park. A year later he released a further 40. It is estimated that there are now over 200 million starlings in America, all descended from those original 100 birds.
Eugene Schieffelin was born in 1827 in Newport, Rhode Island. Residing in the Bronx, he belonged to the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society and the New York Zoological Society, and was chairman of the American Acclimatization Society, a group founded in New York with the aim of introducing European flora and fauna into North America for economic and cultural reasons. It was not then known what the impact of non-native species could have on local ecosystems.
Even before the founding of the American Acclimatization Society wealthy New York residents had started to introduce non-native species such as house sparrows, blackbirds and skylarks into Central Park because they believed they were “useful to the farmer and contributed to the beauty of the groves and fields”.
The American Acclimatization Society had various successes with the introduction of the new species and Alfred Edwards, a wealthy silk merchant even erected bird boxes around Manhattan to help the sparrows breed.
As chairman of the Society, Schieffelin accelerated the efforts of the group, and as an admirer of William Shakespeare he gave the organization a goal of introducing every species of bird mentioned in the Bard’s works as a tribute to the great playwright.
Shakespeare mentions over 60 species of birds over 600 times in his poems and plays but the starling makes just one appearance in Henry IV, Part 1 when Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, eldest son of the future Earl of Northumberland, contemplates using the bird to drive King Henry mad.
Henry refuses to pay a ransom to secure the release of Hotspur’s disloyal brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer. He orders Hotspur never to mention the name of Mortimer so Hotspur aware of the starling’s brilliant ability to mimic other sounds says “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer’, and give it him, to keep his anger still in motion.”
Schieffelin made two failed attempts to introduce starlings before the successes of 1890 and 1891 and for several years the birds didn’t spread much beyond the boundaries of Manhattan. When the first nesting pair were discovered in the eaves of the Museum of Natural History there was cause for celebration.
However, by the 1920s European starlings were found as far away Mississippi, by the 1940s they had spread to California and by 1950 their numbers were estimated to be 50 million inhabiting almost all of the United States as well as parts of Mexico and Canada.
The rapid growth of the American population of starlings has had a devastating impact on native species as well as crops. They eat vast quantities of fruit and seeds and their droppings are linked to a number of diseases including histoplasmosis, a type of lung infection, and toxoplasmosis which can cause miscarriages and stillbirths if pregnant women become infected.
Starlings compete for nest cavities for native birds including woodpeckers and have been indicted as the cause of the decline of New York’s own state bird, the eastern bluebird, although the jury is still out on that one.
Numerous attempts have been made to eradicate starlings but it seems they are ineradicable. As the naturalist George Laycock wrote, “starlings do nothing in moderation”.
And in an issue of Farmers’ Bulletin published in 1929 it was suggested that the ease with which starlings could be captured in church towers and other roosing sites meant that their numbers could be curbed by consuming them as food.