In March 1890 something happened in New York’s Central Park. The pharmacist and theater-goer Eugene Schieffelin brought several cages full of birds there. There were starlings in the cages. Schieffelin opened it and released the birds. So begins the story of how starlings became a plague. And it has to do with the admiration Eugene had for Shakespeare.
Shakespeare and the Birds
Crows, cormorants, owls, nightingales and larks are among the 60 species that appear in the works of the British playwright. Schieffelin loved birds. And he loved Shakespeare’s play too. He was a member of the American Acclimatization Society. The aim was to introduce plants and birds from Europe to the “New World” in order to create comfort and familiarity in the new nation of America. And an idea occurred to him.
He thought of bringing as many of the birds mentioned by the playwright to North America as possible. That winter morning in 1890, he released 60 starlings into Central Park. Before it released nightingales and larks. You didn’t survive. But the starlings were different.
There are currently around 200 million starlings in North America. They destroy the habitats and crops of farmers. It causes nearly $ 1 billion in crop damage every year. Especially fruit trees.
In 1960 they caused the deadliest bird strike accident in aviation history. They got into the engines of an airplane as it took off from Logan Airport in Boston. The plane crashed, killing 62 people.
There have been several attempts in the United States to end it in more than a century. People shot them, tried to poison them, catch them or scare them. Nothing worked. Nobody knew how starlings turned into a pest, but they did.
There are many factors that now explain this. Their sociability protects them from larger birds of prey. They also harass and drive other birds out of their nests. They reject native species like the red woodpecker, swift, and bluebird.
They are an omnivorous species. Their foods range from invertebrates to seeds and fruits. Their binocular vision combined with the characteristics of their beak enable them to find food better than other birds in colder climates. You don’t have to move to warmer climates in winter. You are tougher than Rambo.
It’s ironic. Shakespeare mentions starlings only once in “Henry IV”. Hotspur rebels against the king and ponders how he can be tormented. And he dreams of teaching a star to say “Mortimer”, the name of one of the king’s enemies.
And yet this single mention is the cause of a real environmental disaster. Who would say