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The Shakespearean tale that shaped how we see starlings

 

By Jason Bittel

© The New York Times Co.

In 1890, a mustachioed eccentric named Eugene Schieffelin released a few dozen European starlings into New York City. His supposed goal? Introduce all the bird species mentioned in William Shakespeare’s plays to America.

More than a century later, the European starling is one of the most plentiful bird species in North America. Something like 85 million starlings inhabit this continent, from Alaska and Newfoundland all the way to Mexico. The animals are gorgeous, with polka-dot feather patterns and a purply-green sheen. They fill the skies in great numbers, flying in synchronized patterns called murmurations.

But they are also considered a pest, said to spread disease to livestock and cause $800 million worth of agricultural damage each year. The species is believed to take over the nesting cavities of native birds, leading to population declines.

Add it all up, and it makes one heck of a story about how even the tiniest of actions can lead to profound consequences. The butterfly effect, there for all to see in every roadside murmuration. A starling flaps its wings in Central Park, and around 130 years later, a woodpecker loses its nest and a dairy farmer loses his or her livelihood.

“If true, it would suggest that a long-dead dramatist totally reshaped the ecosystem of a foreign continent, which is a fascinating connection between literature and science,” said John MacNeill Miller, an assistant professor of English at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.

However, Miller and Lauren Fugate, a student who worked with him, recently concluded that crucial parts of the story are not true. And that made them wonder: What else have scientists and naturalists gotten wrong about the European starling’s narrative? Is there more to this bird known mostly as an invasive pest?

The bird and the Bard-lover.

Miller has long been fascinated by the tale of Eugene Schieffelin. But there was a problem with the narrative.

“In all the places that I had seen this story before,” he said, “I never saw a single reliable source from the time period when this supposedly happened.”

So he and Fugate started digging through archives and databases for any link between the Bard-lover and the bird. According to their findings, which were published in the journal Environmental Humanities in November, Schieffelin did release 40 pairs of European starlings into New York City twice in the springs of 1890 and 1891. But Fugate and Miller failed to find evidence that Schieffelin was the Shakespeare superfan he has been made out to be.

They found in an essay collection published in 1948 that Edwin Way Teale, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nature writer, was the first to link the two. He referred to Schieffelin’s “curious hobby” of introducing “all the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.”

Determined to find the source for Teale’s claim, Miller drove to the University of Connecticut to sort through a collection of Teale’s archives. (He died in 1980.) In a draft of the essay, Teale muses that perhaps Schieffelin had been influenced by a Shakespeare garden being started in Central Park around the same time — a botanical homage to the Bard that sought to nurture plants, not birds, mentioned in his plays.

However, Teale got the timing wrong. The Shakespeare Garden — which you can still visit today — wasn’t planned until a decade after Schieffelin’s death, or 22 years after he first released starlings. Therefore, the garden could not have been a factor. The final version of the essay omitted the mention of the garden but left the connection between Schieffelin and Shakespeare. This statement of fact has since been repeated again and again without challenge in magazines, newspapers of record and birding websites.

“Long story short, we concluded that this commonplace story is mostly fictional,” Miller said.

Miller and Fugate also question whether today’s birds are uniquely descended from Schieffelin’s flocks, as is often parroted. Numerous records exist of earlier European starling introductions, starting in 1872, to locations including New York City, Ohio and even as far away as Oregon. Such releases were part of a movement at the time known as “acclimatization” where people deliberately experimented with transplanting species into new areas, either to see how they would adapt or because those species were seen as beneficial in some way.

Some tellings of the Schieffelin starling origin story note these earlier introductions but suggest that those birds failed to survive. However, wild starlings were caught in Massachusetts in 1876, far from any of the documented introductions. Likewise, there is a record of wild starlings in New Jersey in 1884. And who knows how many birds truly survived in nature beyond human notice, the researchers argue.

Hell is empty and all the starlings are here. Miller and Fugate also take issue with the depiction of starlings as biological terrors. As evidence, they point to a wellregarded study from 2003 that found out of 27 native cavity-nesting birds, only one showed hints of decline that might be attributed to the introduction of starlings: the small woodpeckers known as yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

Nicole Michel, director of quantitative science for the National Audubon Society, sees it differently. It’s her job to drill down into bird population data. And she says looking for declines as a result of any one variable sets “too high of a bar.”

“There are many factors out there that we know are impacting birds — cats, building collisions, pesticides,” she said. “And yet it’s very difficult to determine population level impacts.”

She added: “So do starlings affect other birds? Definitely. Are they the only ones that affect other birds? No.”

Nearly 3 billion birds have disappeared from North America since 1970. The European starlings here are counted among them, actually, with an estimated decline of 49% over the same time frame. (Starlings are also “declining rapidly” in Europe.)

Even on the downswing, with about 85 million animals, starlings are bound to create an impact. The more likely scenario is that scientists don’t know enough to see the effects of starlings, said Daniel Simberloff, a biologist at the University of Tennessee.

“We have no idea what its real impact is on insect populations, for example,” said Simberloff, who is also the editor of the journal Biological Invasions. Nor do scientists know much about more subtle but no less important impacts, such as the way starlings may affect how nutrients cycle through an ecosystem, he said.

One factor that’s not subtle is the way European starlings descend on feedlots and dairy farms by the tens to hundreds of thousands. Starlings usually eat insects during the winter, but when livestock feed is available, they will pick through it for steam-flaked corn, which is higher in protein and fiber than other parts of the feed. And when that many birds are taking the M&Ms out of the trail mix, so to speak, it can affect growth and milk production in cows and cost dairy farmers millions of dollars, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.

The birds are also suspected of transmitting diseases to livestock, although proving how this happens exactly has been as slippery as deciphering the effects on native birds. While feedlots with more starlings had higher incidences of antibiotic resistant E. coli, killing more than 70% of the starling flock did not change how much E. coli the cows had. It is also unclear if starlings are bringing microbes into the feedlots or simply spreading microbes that are already there.

To help farmers and livestock owners, the USDA’s Wildlife Services program helps disperse, relocate or eradicate starlings. In 2020 alone, the program shooed away nearly 8 million European starlings, and killed another 790,128 of them. A vast majority of these animals were killed with a poison invented specifically for them called DRC-1339, or Starlicide.

Starlings and arrows of outrageous fortune. While starlings’ impact on native birds is still debated, no one can question the effect they have had on American aviation. Just ask Joan Berry Hale.

On Oct. 4, 1960, Hale was working as a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines when the Lockheed L-188 Electra she was crewing scared a flock of starlings as it took off from Boston en route to Philadelphia.

“I could see out the window in the back, and I saw all these black birds fly by,” said Hale, now 85. The plane’s propellers ingested hundreds of starlings, which disturbed the engines and forced the craft to pitch left and crash nose first into the bay. “They didn’t find the front-end crew until they pulled the nose up out of the mud the next day,” she recalled.

Of the 72 people on board, only 10 survived. Most were severely injured, but Hale emerged unscathed and helped survivors exit the wreckage, put on life preservers and board rescue boats.

The Electra crash remains the deadliest accident resulting from a bird strike. It was also a turning point in aviation safety.

“That was the crash that started it all,” said Carla Dove, program manager for the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab, which was created in response to the Electra accident.

Since its formation, the Feather Identification Lab has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to make air travel safer. Using the Smithsonian’s vast collection of feathers, Dove and other experts can take a piece of “snarge,” what they call bits of bird that have gone through a jet engine, and figure out which species it belonged to. Then, airport managers and wildlife biologists can work together to make the facilities less attractive to those species.

For starlings, said Richard Dolbeer, a science adviser for the USDA’s Airport Wildlife Hazards Program, something as simple as letting the grass grow can discourage the birds from landing. Spacing out trees also cuts down on large, communal overnight roosts that might keep the animals near an airport.

Once more unto the breach.

But starlings may have some admirable qualities that are typically overlooked.

“You see a lot of these popular papers that talk about it as one of the great scourges of North America,” Simberloff said of starlings. “And they don’t seem to be that.”

Dolbeer, who is also an ornithologist, said he had “great admiration for starlings because they are so adaptable.” He’s also fascinated by the way starlings can intermingle and even roost with native species, such as redwinged blackbirds. “It’s sort of like the analogy of America being a melting pot, with all the people coming in and gluing together,” he said.

 

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