Eugene Schieffelin, William Shakespeare and Starlings in the USA

Eugene Schieffelin

Although the Sparrow and the Starling are on the conservation red list in the United Kingdom it is interesting that by comparison they are doing rather well in the United States.

The European Starling was introduced into North America in the 1890s, and quickly spread across the continent.  It is a fierce competitor for nest cavities, and frequently expels native bird species and is therefore widely regarded as a pest and has been blamed for a decline in indigenous bird populations, especially the infinitely more attractive Bluebird.

The Sparrow and the Starling together with the Pigeon are the only three unprotected bird species in North America, they are all introduced and there are more of them than all the other birds put together.

European Starling

The European Starling is resident in the US because in 1890, a wealthy American businessman called Eugene Schieffelin introduced sixty Starlings into New York Central Park and then another forty the following year.  In doing so he radically and irreversibly altered America’s bird population because today European Starlings range from Alaska to Florida and even into Mexico and their population is estimated at over two hundred million.

Schieffelin was an interesting man who belonged to the Acclimation Society of North America, a group with the seemingly laudable, if misguided, aim of aiding the exchange of plants and animals from one part of the world to another.  In the nineteenth century, such societies were fashionable and were supported by the scientific knowledge and beliefs of an era that had no way of understanding the effect that non-native species could have on the local ecosystem.

Actually, in his defence, some recent revisionist thinking has concluded that the introduction of the Starling was perhaps not as devastating has had previously been suggested and one thing is certain and that is that is was not nearly so thoughtless as the introduction of the European rabbit to the continent of Australia in 1859 by a certain Thomas Austin who wanted them there to satisfy his hunting hobby.

rabbit

The effect of rabbits on the ecology of Australia has been truly devastating and entirely due to the rabbit one eighth of all mammalian species in Australia are now extinct and the loss of plant species is at present uncalculated. They have established themselves as Australia’s biggest pest and annually cause millions of dollars of damage to agriculture. The introduction of the rabbit was an ecological mistake on a monumental scale!

Similarly the humble hedgehog to the Hebrides Islands in Scotland. The prickly interlopers were introduced in 1974 in a misguided act of biological control of slugs and snails. As the numbers of hedgehogs spread across these islands, so the breeding success of many of the internationally important populations of wading birds decreased. A link was made – hedgehogs are partial to eggs, and these hedgehogs were emerging from hibernation just as the birds were laying a smorgasbord of eggy delight. Now the UK Government spends thousands of pounds of taxpayers money trying to eradicate them.

When he wasn’t tinkering with the environment Eugene Schieffelin liked joining clubs and societies and his obituary in the New York Times in 1906 listed his membership of The New York Genealogical and Biographic Society, The New York Zoological Society, The Society of Colonial Wars, The St. Nicholas Club, the St. Nicholas Society and the Union Club of New York which in the 1870’s was generally regarded as the richest club in the world. Obviously Schieffelin had too much money and too much time on his hands!

Birds of Shakespeare

There is an alternative story behind the introduction of the European Starling. It is said that Schieffelin belonged to a group dedicated to introducing into America all the birds mentioned in the complete works of William Shakespeare because they they thought it would be nice to hear the sound of the poet’s birds warbling their old world songs on the tree branches of America. If this were true he must have been unusually familiar with the works of the Elizabethan bard because Shakespeare’s sole reference to the starling appears in King Henry IV, part 1 (Act 1, scene 3): “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer.’”

As well as the Starling Schieffelin was also responsible for introducing the House Sparrow, which was released into Brooklyn in New York in 1851 and by 1900 had spread as far as the Rocky Mountains and is today common across the entire continent. The sparrow too is regarded as a pest as it is in Australia where it was introduced at roughly the same time, paradoxically as an experiment in pest control.  How badly wrong can an experiment go I wonder?

Schieffelin wasn’t always successful however, probably just as well, and his attempts to introduce bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks were not successful.

Interestingly the House Sparrow gets four mentions in Shakespeare’s works, in Hamlet, As You Like It, The Tempest and Troilus and Cressida. The full list of avian references in the works of Shakespeare were researched by the Scottish geologist Sir Archibald Geikie and recorded in his book published in 1916, ‘The Birds of Shakespeare’ and they are the Blackbird, Bunting, Buzzard, Chough, Cock, Cormorant, Crow, Cuckoo, Dive-dapper, Dove and Pigeon, Duck, Eagle, Falcon and Sparrowhawk, Finch, Goose, Hedge Sparrow, House Martin, Jackdaw, Jay, Kite, Lapwing, Lark, Loon, Magpie, Nightingale, Osprey, Ostrich, Owl, Parrot, Partridge, Peacock, Pelican, Pheasant, Quail, Raven, Robin, Snipe, Sparrow, Starling, Swallow, Swan, Thrush, Turkey, Vulture, Wagtail, Woodcock and the Wren.

Some people research some very strange things!

I have told you before about my Dad’s schoolboy notebook about birds, well, this is his Starling page…

Dads Starling Page

42 responses to “Eugene Schieffelin, William Shakespeare and Starlings in the USA

  1. I had no idea that the sparrows and starlings are now on the conservation red list for the Uk – I remember them so well growing up! I saw a couple of rabbits the other day on my walk round the local native bush remnant here in our suburb – they looked so cute but of course they are pests and do damage to the native flora and crops (as cats do to the native birds and fauna – ours is an indoor only one!).

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  2. Australia is overrun with pests—rabbits, foxes, starlings, mynahs and more. Pity no one thought in to the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice post. As an aside, Hawaiʻi is now very strict in keeping new species of plants and animals from being introduced into the islands.

    I could make an argument against it by saying that every species is an introduced species on islands that are volcanic and are still being formed. The iconic coconut (palm) is not native to the islands, as an example.

    There are examples from every era and on every continent of deliberate introduction of plants or animals to control some other plant or animal and it still happens, albeit more carefully than it used to. Also, because of the increased ease of travel and because people are not very bright, we still have accidental contaminations of local flora and fauna.

    Why, I myself was introduced to the US in the early 1960s in the hopes of stemming the spread of ignorance. As it turns out, I might be contributing to it by pissing people off and calling them idiots. Go figure.

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  4. To be fair, though, we have had to put up with the Grey Squirrel which will one day drive the Red Squirrel into extinction now that some eco-buffoons have allowed its unchecked spread in northern Italy. It’s strange with those birds and with the squirrel that it was introduced as a foreign species to their own country in all three cases, not, as you might expect, by somebody pining for the creatures of his own country. My favourite Shakespeare quote is ” I know a hawk from a handsaw”. The Bard clearly knew his birds. Many is the time out bird watching when I have thought a heron was a bird of prey when I initially saw it take off.

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  5. That was really interestingly! I knew about the introduction of rabbits in Australia but not the rest – fascinating. I wonder what we are doing that will seem totally senseless in 100 years time? Oh hang on, I don’t really have to wonder all that long ……

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  6. International warfare. Animals of mass destruction. They attack with grey squirrels. We retaliate with starlings.

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  7. A fascinating post Andrew and the comments too. Have you heard about the Canadian beavers destroying massive amounts of area in Argentina and Chile? Another example of someone with a very unwise idea. In 1946 25 pairs of beavers were brought to the area with the idea of starting a fur trade. Now there are 200,000 building dams and flooding forests.

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    • Some people in England are carrying out research on the reintroduction of the Beaver here. There is an experimental site in Devon where a Beaver colony lives in an area that has fences to keep them in. My money is on the fact that there will be an inevitable mistake and they will become a pest just like the Mink that escaped from fur farms and has become a real nuisance.
      Nice to hear from you!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is fascinating, and your Dad’s school notebook is a treasure. You’re lucky to have it.

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  9. Yes yes yes. But of all the animals to have been introduced and is now doing immeasurable damage there is none worse than the domestic cat. They are loved when they are curled up on a rug in front of the fire, but at night they wreak havoc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s because ignorant and non-caring people let them out at night (and during the day, and early morning, and evenings).

      http://www.conservationmagazine.org/2015/07/pet-owners-wont-admit-their-cats-harm-wildlife/

      https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/moral-cost-of-cats-180960505/

      For the record, I’ve owned cats. It’s difficult telling cat owners they are contributing to the demise of songbirds. One even told me that’s just nature.

      I pointed out that gangs are a natural byproduct of human existence and asked if they would like for a gang or two to be let loose in their neighborhood. Yes, I can be a dick occasionally . . . sometimes . . . often.

      But, say cat owners, I’ve read that feral cats kill way more birds than domestic cats:
      https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/feral-cats-kill-billions-of-small-critters-each-year-7814590/

      Oh, well, then sure; why not contribute every little bit you can.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I have always kept a cat and I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times they have returned home with a bird kill to brag off.

      Consider this that I once wrote in a post about the Sparrowhawk…

      Each adult Sparrowhawk will kill and consume a couple of small birds a day for themselves and when they are breeding at about this time of the year a pair needs to catch another ten or so just to feed the chicks. According to the RSPB there are forty thousand breeding pairs in the United Kingdom so by my calculation that is twenty thousand nests with an average of three chicks each so to feed themselves and their offspring this means three hundred thousand murders a day. As Thomas Hobbes said in his philosophical treatise, Leviathan, ‘Life (in the state of nature) is nasty, brutish and short”.

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      • You’re assuming your cat brings back every kill they make.

        Even so, let’s see . . . the UK currently has 8 million cats (pets, not feral).

        At five kills per cat per year (I’m low-balling) . . . let me do the math . . . that would be 40 million kills or 109K birds per day.

        If only 1/4 of cat owners let their cats out, that’s still 10 million kills a year. Now, sure, one can argue nature is far deadlier. Still, that still means 27K less birds each day. And that’s assuming each cat only kills five birds a year. I suppose one can point to a larger problem from feral cats or even other predators, but how would it work out if we apply that logic to all the problems we face?

        Take crime. Gangs are responsible for a lot of crime, so how harmful can it be if we ourselves commit the occasional crime? Just a drop in a bucket, right? The victims won’t mind, right? Odds are they were going to be victims anyway.

        I guess castigating the introduction of non-native species into stable populations doesn’t apply when we personally do it.

        But, OK. I don’t live in the UK and if songbirds and other low-nesting birds are not that important to residents of the UK, I guess it’s pointless for me to meddle. Plus, you know, I end up being labeled a royal pain in the rear orifice for using logic and pointing out inconsistencies. I mean, who wants that, eh?

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      • I am not an apologist for the cat and let me tell you people in the UK are obsessive about our birds.

        Statistically environmental changes are more likely to have an impact on numbers than predator activity. Intensive farming, reduced hedgerow and use of chemical fertilisers. House Sparrow numbers are declining because modern house build design doesn’t provide suitable nesting opportunities.

        And then consider this. In Italy nearly 6 million migrating birds flying between Northern Europe and North Africa are captured and slaughtered for the so-called culinary delicacy of a pickled songbird. Egypt is responsible for a similar number of pointless deaths.

        Shooting Sparrows and Starlings is legal in the US!

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      • The point isn’t the numbers. The point is that the numbers are used as an excuse for adding to the problem.

        The point is that cats who are let outside add to the problem.

        It appears the argument is as follows:
        1) lots of birds are killed through various methods.
        2) the situation appears dire.
        3) that said, my cat will only kill a few more and based on the enormity of the problem, that’s really minuscule.
        4) ergo, Q. E. D. my conscience is clear. Not my problem. Look! Look over there how many more are killed!

        Again, that seems a strange approach to take by people who are obsessive about their birds. That’s just an observation on my part, not necessarily a condemnation. It’s just that — given the tone of this post and of the subsequent comments — that strikes me kind of odd, is all.

        For what it’s worth, people here react the same way. In forty years, I’ve yet to meet even one cat owner who changed their minds about letting their cats out. In that time, we’ve owned four cats. The first one occasionally went out. Once we saw the numbers, she became a house cat as were all the subsequent ones. No, not bragging. The other reason to keep them indoors is that they live longer.

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      • The paradox is that we love our cats as well as the birds!

        Who killed Cock Robin?
        I, said the Sparrow,
        with my bow and arrow,
        I killed Cock Robin.

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  10. Looks like I have to agree with paolsoren. 😀 Then I suppose it all depends on which animal is in your yard or vicinity.

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  11. In Western Australia the sparrow is considered a pest and if ever one it spotted it’ll make headlines until it is captured and killed. I never saw one in the 10 years I lived in the west, The starlings were a bit of a nuisance in the wheatbelt areas.
    Dont know whats happened to all the bunny rabbits, want to buy one to eat these days they cost more than a chook or a steak come to that.

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  13. Here in New England starlings abound. Sometimes they are considered as pests.

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  14. Take flight to the theatre… well done.

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