Shakespeare and Starlings

Apr 8, 2016

Credit bioquest.org

For a man who wrote easy-on-the-ear verse in line after line of iambic pentameter, William Shakespeare must spin in his grave to think he’s the reason millions of screeching, squabbling starlings swarm from shore to shore and border to border in America.

So who had the misguided idea to import these obnoxious creatures? In 1890 and 91, New Yorker Edward Schieffelin, a leader of the American Acclimatization Society, acted on a romantic notion to import examples of everything ever mentioned in a Shakespearian play to his hometown. Unfortunately, the bard included starlings in a scene in part one of Henry IV. That was the beginning of this cursed bird’s existence in the New World.

No one in his wildest imaginings would have thought 60 pairs of starlings released in Central Park at the end of the 19th century would multiply to over 200,000,000 dumpy looking birds that now live in rural areas, towns, and cities across America. But that’s exactly what happened. While these raucous creatures tend to congregate in urban communities, they have spread into less populated regions, swarming in backyard trees and perching along fences like prisoners in a line-up.

 More than a few of these dark feathered, squatty-bodied avians found their way to northwest Kansas where their irritating mechanical noises interrupt picnics and naps in a hammock. We didn’t see many of them when we lived in the country, but now that we’ve moved to town, I’m frequently reminded why so few people like this bird.

First, they congregate in masses. Scores of them mow across the field behind my house, looking for insects, or they swarm in the cottonwood next to my deck. Their continual bickering chases songbirds away. Their repeated flyovers on the way to a branch led to the need for some serious patio scrubbing. No matter where they land, they scrap and fight in ever changing tones like a gang of quarreling adolescents.

For birds that are related to the mockingbird and thrasher, starlings don’t sing lovely songs. Their vocalizations resemble the often-maligned fishwife and her shrewish shrieks. They’re guttural and shrill. If these birds imitate something, it isn’t likely to be the sweet trill of a robin. They are more inclined to duplicate the irritating sounds of car alarms and screeching mechanical objects.

By 1950, these dark feathered creatures had mastered Manifest Destiny and occupied the United States from Woody Guthrie’s California to his New York Island. Conditions agreed with them and those first few pairs have multiplied until there are more than 200 million of them irritating fellow birds and human neighbors. 

Persistence is normally a desirable trait, but not in the case of these critters. Once a pair nests, they return year after year to raise several broods of young who will likely call that same area home. Once these guys move in, getting rid of them is an overwhelming challenge. These birds are stubborn not only about returning annually; this invasive species is notorious for evicting more desirable birds and attacking their young.

After reading the backstory to the starlings’ arrival in the new world, I’m still not a fan. Too bad Ed didn’t live to see the havoc he wreaked when he pursued his wild notion. There’s a lesson in this tale for the rest of us to ponder.