There is little doubt that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are a non-native (invasive) species in the United States. They have long been associated indirectly with Shakespeare “fanatics.” But are Shakespeare’s starlings the Iago of the American world? Some now cast doubt on that belief.
The New York Invasive Species Information webite links them directly to Shakespeare. It says categorically that the the European starlings came to the United States in 1890. It was what could be called an a classic invasive species scenario. A Shakespeare “fanatic” allegedly sought to introduce every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays into the United States. He purportedly released either 60 0r 200 of the birds in Central Park. That scenario may be fiction but the results are not.
According to the accepted story the results were horrific. Some 200 million of the birds are said to plague the United States.
The New York invasive species website paints a grim picture”:
“The damage caused by European starlings on the agricultural industry was estimated to be approximately $800 million per year at $5 per hectare (Pimentel et al. 2000). Starlings eat cattle rations and destroy fruit and grain crops. Some starlings may also carry various diseases which may be transmissible to humans, other birds (including poultry), and livestock (Linz et al. 2007).
“Due to the flocking nature of starlings and being well adapted in urban settings, roosts near airports have become a large problem. If a plane flies through a large flock of starlings, the birds can get caught in the jet engines causing damage to the aircraft as well as pose a hazard to humans. Additionally, in urban and rural settings, bird may seek shelter in barns and industrial buildings and create a lot of noise and filth which pose health hazards.
“Ecologically, starlings may outcompete native cavity-nesting birds for nest sites. While there are no significant results indicating species declines for all native cavity nesters due to starlings, Koenig (2003) did find that certain species, such as native sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus spp.) were negatively impacted by starling presence. Starlings are also frugivores, meaning they feed on the fruits of plants. When fruits pass through the system of a bird after being ingested it may increase the likelihood that those seeds will germinate in some cases. A study done in 2009 found that the digestive system of starlings will increase seed germination after feeding on invasive autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and invasive oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) fruit and that the seed stayed inside the starlings long enough for dispersal to occur (LaFleur et al. 2009).”
But now there is pushback challenging both the Shakespeare link and the scope of the damage. Shakespeare’s starlings have defenders.
It began with John MacNeill Miller, Associate professor of English at Allegheny College, who was familiar with the story, and his research assistant, Lauren Fugate. Miller directed Fugate to research the origin story.
“Fugate’s research found that as dislike of the birds grew, so did a new rumor about how they got here. According to that rumor, starlings were imported by a misguided Shakespeare fanatic, a well-to-do entrepreneur named Eugene Schieffelin, who was obsessed with introducing into North America every bird mentioned in Shakespeare.
“That story is essentially fiction, but it did a lot to color how people saw starlings in the 20th century,” Miller says. “I wish I could say we all approach starlings more neutrally and evenhandedly now. Unfortunately, those older attitudes and language are still in circulation today, often in supposedly scientific discussions of starlings as examples of non-native, ‘invasive’ species.””
The conclusion they reached is that Shakespeare’s starlings became unpopular long after their introduction earlier in the century. That unpopularity led to ornate rumors of how they got here. Their unpopularity led to tales of their destructiveness.
But Miller may leave a few things out. “Entrepreneur” may not be the right descriptive.
Eugene Schieffelin was a prominent amateur ornithologist. A well known member of a number of ornithology associations. Web sources say he did in fact release starlings in Central Park. He was not the sole person to do so, it must be said, as Miller correctly notes. The idea that he was trying to bring every Shakespearean bird to the United States is harder to prove as it does not appear to be contemporary. However, he was a believer in efforts to introduce plants and animals from one part of the world to the other, web sources say.
Truth be told neither Miller nor Fugate are biologists or experts in invasive species damage. But their research does remind us to be careful with the “received record” and is also a reminder to be skeptical.