Shakespeare’s Birds in America

Updated on May 12, 2017

Eugene Schieffelin was a great fan of the Bard. Born in Germany, he moved to America and, in the classic immigrant-makes-good story, created a large fortune for himself in the drug trade.

He became Chairman of the Acclimatization Society of North America, an organization that had the goal of introducing European plants and animals into the New World. These folk were misguided and did not understand the impact such changes might have on indigenous species; although, in fairness, the science on the problem was primitive at best at the time. Schieffelin’s particular interest was the birds referred to by William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare in Central Park.
Shakespeare in Central Park. | Source

The Bard’s Birds

More than 60 species of bird pop up in Shakespeare’s texts – mallard, kingfisher, jay, peacock, cuckoo, turkey, thrush, and on and on.

“Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.

Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.

Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.”

Two for the price of one in Romeo and Juliet.

But, the North American climate was not to the liking of skylarks or nightingales; they froze to death and fell off their perches. Bullfiches and wrens were equally unimpressed by the chilly winter nights.

But not the starling. Oh, definitely not the starling.

Invasive Species

The only reference to starlings in Shakespeare comes in King Henry IV, part 1. Hotspur intends to annoy the king with an endlessly chattering bird and says “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer.’ ” It’s safe to say the Bard was not as enamoured of the starling as with the dove or swan.

So let’s fast forward from 1600 to March 6, 1890. There is Eugene Schieffelin on a frosty morning standing in Central Park, New York with the sleet and snow swirling about him. He is there with his staff who, presumably, are doing the grunt work of releasing 60 starlings that he has imported, at great expense, from Europe. He released another 40 the following year.

“Fly away birdies, and multiply.” And, they did with amazing vigour and success. There are now an estimated 200 million European starlings in North America and, to put it bluntly, they are a bloody nuisance.

A Murmuration of Starlings in California.

Too Many Starlings

The birds are very adaptable. They’ll eat anything and roost anywhere. As noted by The Pacific Standard “Within a couple of decades, they’d reached the Mississippi River. Fifty years after gingerly emerging from Schieffelin’s cages, they could be found in every state. Today, starlings can be found everywhere from Alaska to Mexico.” We’ve got them here in Canada too; lots of them.

And, they are causing serious problems. They brought down an Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-188 turboprop airplane in 1960. Flight 375 had just taken off from Boston’s Logan Airport when it flew into a large flock of starlings. The engines failed and the plane crashed into Winthrop Bay, killing all but ten of 72 people aboard.

According to the BBC (April 2014) “Starlings … cost U.S. agriculture an estimated $1bn (£595m) a year in damage to crops - particularly fruit trees.”

Starlings carry lots of tick-borne diseases that can be dangerous to humans and cattle.

Native birds are victims of the belligerence of starlings that steal the best nesting sites. Here’s The Pacific Standard again: “One researcher, after painstakingly observing 96 breeding pairs of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, counted starlings in half their nests by the end of the breeding season.” Purple martins and bluebirds have also been muscled out of their nesting places.

And then, there’s the nasty business of histoplasmosis. Starling droppings can promote the growth of a fungus, which, if inhaled from disturbed soil, can cause some nasty symptoms listed by the Mayo Clinic Fever – “chills, headache, muscle aches, dry cough, and chest discomfort.” In rare cases histoplasmosis can be fatal.

""Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman" - Macbeth.
""Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman" - Macbeth. | Source

Fighting the Starling Invasion

The United States Department of Agriculture has been on the offensive. In 2012, they bumped off 1.5 million starlings, but that’s less than one percent of the total population.

In the 1930s, the government tried popularize the eating of starling pie. Clerk of the House of Representatives and former congressman South Trimble took to the plan with gusto. Armed with a shotgun he would prowl the grounds of the Capitol and bring down a couple of dozen from their tree roosts in a single blast. He invited senior politicians to enjoy the subsequent feast of four and twenty blackbirds backed in a pie. But, plucking and gutting such small birds that started out weighing six ounces with all their bits attached never caught on.

The usual armoury of weapons has been deployed against the pesky critters – poison, noise cannon, electrified wires, falcons, speakers emitting owl noises, and even itching powder. Nothing has worked. The European starlings have bred and spread.

Eugene Schieffelin, the man who started the starling invasion, would probably agree with his idol Shakespeare who has Lady Macbeth saying “What’s done cannot be undone.”

"When the wind is southerly I can tell a hawk from a handsaw." Hamlet.
"When the wind is southerly I can tell a hawk from a handsaw." Hamlet. | Source

Bonus Factoids

Mozart bought a starling in 1784 and kept it as a pet. When it died three years later he held an elaborate funeral for the bird.

“Shakespeare has drawn an assemblage of bird-portraits to which, for extent and variety, no equal is to be found in any other great English poet.” Sir Archibald Geikie, O.M., K.C.B., D.C.L., F.R.S., in an address to the Haslemere Natural History Society, March 1916.

According to the BBC "On 20th August 1949, time appeared to stand still for several minutes, when hundreds of starlings roosted on the long hand of Big Ben."


European starling.
European starling. | Source

In 1958, Chinese leader Mao Zedong ordered an eradication of sparrows from the country because, he said, they were eating too much rice. People banged pots to scare sparrows into flight and keep them aloft until they plunged to the ground, dead of exhaustion. Nests were destroyed and birds shot. Sparrows became almost extinct in China, by which time it was realised that sparrows don’t eat rice. The following year, insect infestations caused crop failures because there were no sparrows to eat the pests.

“Starlings are lean and mean. In the industry they’re often called feathered bullets.” Michael Begier, National Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Airports Wildlife Hazards Program.

What a Pity the Nightingale With its Exquisite Song Didn't Thrive in N. America.

Sources

  • “The Shakespeare Fanatic Who Introduced All of the Bard’s Birds to America.” Scott Keyes and Daniel Karp, Pacific Standard, May 29, 2014.
  • “The Birds of Shakespeare Cause U.S. Trouble.” Jane O'Brien, BBC News, April 24, 2014.
  • “Four and 20 Blackbirds Baked in a Pie? Not Quite.” John Kelly, Washington Post, October 4, 2015.
  • “The Invasive Species We Can Blame On Shakespeare.” Sarah Zielinski, Smithsonian Magazine, October 4, 2011.

Questions & Answers

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      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        14 months ago from Norfolk, England

        I had no idea Starlings were such a problem. They do sound nice when they sing though.

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