Why Shakespeare Is to Blame for America’s Bird Invasion

Why Shakespeare Is to Blame for America’s Bird Invasion

William Shakespeare sure did love his birds. In fact, throughout his considerable body of work, the playwright had made hundreds of references to dozens of different species. As you are about to find out, the headline is only semi-serious. Shakespeare, the person, can’t be blamed for America’s problem with non-native birds. He had a pretty good excuse – he was dead at the time. However, his work did inspire some people to take some very rash actions that will end up having serious consequences.

We’re going back to the end of the 19th century. Back then, we haven’t yet figured it out that the sudden introduction of invasive species into a new habitat can have unforeseen, often unwanted repercussions. That is why, in 1871, the American Acclimatization Society was born in New York City. Inspired by a similar French organization established 20 years earlier, the American society’s goal was to introduce flora and fauna from Europe for various cultural or economic reasons.

This was mostly wealthy New York elite who thought that they could “pretty up” the city by adding more exotic birds to it. However, they did also try to keep a scientific component in mind – introduce birds that would not damage crops and would actually be beneficial to farmers. Their plan was to introduce birds like skylarks, robins, chaffinches and European tits (stop giggling back there).

Of course, these plans kind of went off to the side thanks to the society’s chairman, Eugene Schieffelin. He was a big fan of Shakespeare so he had another “brilliant” idea – why not introduce all the birds mentioned in his plays? Or, at the very least, as many as possible.

So they did. To be fair, it’s almost impossible to tell exactly how an invasive species would fare in a new environment. It’s not a guarantee that it would immediately become dominant and reduce the numbers of local wildlife (although this has happened on numerous occasions). Originally the society introduced skylarks and nightingales but neither species survived. And then we get to starlings. There was no reason to believe that they would fare any better. Regardless, about a hundred or so were released in New York by Schieffelin and his gang who mostly expected them to die out in the harsh winter (which is a pretty weird thing to do for supposed bird lovers).

European starling singing

Photo Credit: David Corby via Wiki Commons

But the starlings survived. Not only that, they thrived. If you thought that the starling was an indigenous species, it would be completely understandable because they are everywhere. It started out with 100 of them in NYC. Now there are over 200 million European starlings all over the country. I’d say that they spread like wildfire but wildfire doesn’t spread this fast. They can be found in every environment from Alaska all the way down to Mexico.

So, as far as the American Acclimatization Society is concerned, this should be a job well done, right? Not really. It didn’t take people long to realize that starlings can be a nuisance. They severely impact the local wildlife because they basically take over the place. They will even kick out smaller birds like woodpeckers and bluebirds out of their own nests. They cause a lot of damage to crops (about $1 billion per year) and they can also transmit avian and human diseases. In 1960, they even caused the worst bird strike accident in US history when they brought down a plane in Boston, killing 62 people.

So, as you see, the bird really is a pest. It just looks prettier than other pests. And it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. In 2012 alone, the USDA killed around 1.5 million starlings but, when there are 200 million more waiting, that had little to no significant impact.



Featured image courtesy of Linda Tanner via Wiki Commons.