SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
September 09, 1974
The pretty plan was to bring the Bard's birds to America. It brought troubles by the flock
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September 09, 1974

A Plague Of Starlings

The pretty plan was to bring the Bard's birds to America. It brought troubles by the flock

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But it takes a great many starlings to put on a show, and they could not perform when there were only 100 in North America. Why did Schieffelin bring them in? He loved Shakespeare, and he considered it his duty to give his countrymen the cuckoos and nightingales nature had failed to provide. If you can find his biography, which is about as easy as locating the remains of the lapwings Schieffelin also imported, you will learn that his alarming success with starlings ranked even over his work in introducing the English sparrow into this country. But he shared the credit for the sparrows—if credit is the word—with other deluded bird enthusiasts. The starling was all his own.

Until he got mixed up with birds he had a blameless career. The Schieffelin family was one of the wealthiest in New York, having pioneered in the wholesale drug business. When oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, the Schieffelins bottled and sold petroleum as internal medicine, which was then more profitable than selling it for fuel. Eugene's grandfather Jacob, born in Philadelphia, was a British soldier in the colonial wars and a merchant and Indian trader before setting up shop in New York in 1794, having lived down the handicap of supporting King George III in the Revolution. Eugene's father, Henry Hamilton Schieffelin, was a lawyer, a friend of botanists and men of letters, and something of an adventurer who wandered around Europe until the enormous wealth of the family business compelled him to spend all his time managing it.

Eugene was born in 1827, the youngest of seven children. He was not expected to do anything at all except—as one social historian puts it—develop his "rare intellectual qualities, the results of inherited tastes and talents"; his mother wrote poetry. Instead he went into business when he was only 22 years old. He was a conscientious clubman, going regularly to the St. Nicholas, just around the corner from his home, or to the Union, the Corinthian Yacht Club or the Tuxedo, then the favorite organization of upper-class sportsmen. He was in the Society List from its inception, as well as in the Club Register which preceded it. After he married an heiress whose father owned much of the land on which Brooklyn was built, his social and financial position was unrivaled. He was a gifted artist, and after he retired from business in his early 30s he passed his time painting portraits. He had a serious, not to say solemn, view of his position as a leader of society. There was no Gilded Age extravagance about him: he simply thought he owed it to the public to maintain an active social life and attached a special value—as the family chronicler prissily notes—"to culture and refinement in the best sense." In his spare time he took up ornithology and impressed his friends with the depth of his knowledge about birds.

Between 1852 and 1860 he lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue at Madison Square. Caterpillars infested the trees in the square, and he imported 12 English sparrows to start a colony to exterminate the caterpillars. He was not the first in this respect. A shipment had been turned loose by someone else in a Brooklyn cemetery at least 10 years before. The sparrows preceded the starlings as nuisances. In 1870 the city of Philadelphia released a thousand sparrows in its parks. The result was a chain reaction of sparrow colonies. The birds traveled in empty boxcars that had contained grain, and spread almost at once around railroad yards all over the country. The hatred focused on English sparrows was almost hysterical. They were described in Congress as "rats of the air, vermin of the atmosphere." Elliot Coues, director of the Biological Survey, who was one of the most vigorous and interesting nature writers of the time (until he gave up science for spiritualism), denounced sparrows as "wretched interlopers we have thoughtlessly introduced, and played with, and coddled." Detestation of sparrows led to bounties being paid for dead birds ($117,500 in all), to attempts to sell them in markets (25� a dozen), to massive sparrow-trapping operations (400,000 trapped in Indianapolis in two years) and to shooting, poisoning, netting and nest-destroying, in which a lot of birds other than sparrows were killed.

It was only natural for Schieffelin to want to import such beloved English birds as skylarks and nightingales to counteract the bad reputation of sparrows. Moreover, he had rivals. The most effective was the Cincinnati Acclimatization Society, which was dedicated to the introduction into the U.S. of "all useful insect-eating European birds, as well as the best singers." In 1873 the society sent its secretary armin tenner, to Europe. He arranged for the trapping of some 3,000 birds, of various species in Germany and along the Danube. By the standards of the time it cost a small fortune to import live birds, but the Cincinnati society was backed by wealthy businessmen. The birds reached Cincinnati in mid-December and were kept throughout the winter in an empty mansion in Burnett Woods Park. When the weather cleared in the spring, the birds were taken into the park and, amid considerable civic excitement, turned loose.

They disappeared. Only the skylarks returned the next spring, and then they too vanished. Tenner gave several theories as to what happened. One was that the birds were shot. Another was that they were taken by birds of prey which they had not known in the Old Country and so did not know how to escape. The society spent another $5,000 bringing in 15 new species, but they disappeared also. Tenner theorized that the birds were confused by the geography of North America. They flew west thinking they were migrating south. Arriving at the Pacific Ocean, they thought it was some European body of water they could fly across. "They start across the ocean," Tenner said. "They fly hundreds of miles and find no sign of land. They become bewildered. Completely exhausted and no longer able to fly, they drop down one by one into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. They are drowned, lost." The society lost its financial backing and quit importing birds.

Schieffelin was not so easily discouraged. He organized the American Acclimatization Society. His brother Maunsell headed the New York Colonization Society. By 1877 Schieffelin was regularly releasing English songbirds in Central Park. He had rivals even there. Joshua Jones, an elderly social figure out of the Society List, and John Lansing Sutherland, from the Club Register, were liberating chaffinches and other birds. But they had no profound central purpose akin to Schieffelin's plan to import all of Shakespeare's birds, and soon gave up.

On the West Coast more rivals appeared, as tenacious as Schieffelin himself. The German Song Bird Society of Portland, Ore. was formed to import into the Northwestern woods all the birds whose songs the German immigrants had enjoyed in Germany. Directly before their eyes was one of the most spectacularly successful introductions of a foreign game bird in history, Owen Denny's work with the ringnecked pheasant of China. Denny had arrived in Oregon in 1852 from a farm in Ohio, crossing the plains by covered wagon. When he was 14 his father was killed by the kick of an Indian pony, and Owen had to work to help support the family. He worked his way through college, studied law and was elected a police-court judge. Appointed consul in Tientsin in 1877, he became interested in Chinese birds while studying the attitude of Chinese farmers toward them. Unlike American farmers, they did not shoot or frighten birds from their fields. They netted them, however, and placed them on sale, live, at the markets. Chinese would not buy dead birds, fearing they had been poisoned. Denny bought a dozen bedraggled and half-starved ringnecked pheasants and look them home to fatten them. They grew so rapidly and became so beautiful that he kept them to admire them, and one day the thought crossed his mind that they might do well in Oregon. The ship Otego was at the point of sailing for Port Townsend, Washington Territory, and in January 1881 Denny loaded about 60 pheasants on it.

Few birds were lost in the ocean crossing. But at Port Townsend, at the entrance of Puget Sound some 200 miles from Portland, they were roughly handled, shipped by train for several days, and only three hens and 17 cocks were alive when they reached Oregon in March. Denny's instructions on how the birds were to be released were disregarded; they were turned loose in the damp woodlands near the mouth of the Columbia River and apparently none survived. Denny was furious. The birds had cost him about $300. It happened to be a time of intense anti-Chinese feeling on the Pacific Coast, and Denny, who admired the Chinese people as well as Chinese birds, became determined to plant his pheasants in Oregon. The following spring he sent over a better-prepared shipment on a vessel sailing directly to Portland. His brother John released 28 pheasants on a grassy butte behind the Denny farm.

In the meantime Denny had been appointed consul-general at Shanghai and became a leader of the foreign colony in the city. He had earlier persuaded the Oregon legislature to protect his birds for 11 years. But they multiplied so fast that farmers accused them of eating their grain and hunters were killing them. Denny left the consular service in 1884 and sent home a shipment of golden, silver, copper and green pheasants from China and Japan that cost him from $5 to $9 apiece. These he entrusted to the Multnomah Rod and Gun Club, while he took up new duties as foreign affairs adviser to the king of Korea. The gun club placed the birds on a 700-acre island in Puget Sound, promising the owner $50 plus $25 a month to care for them. Within a year, however, the club was declared bankrupt and disbanded. The island's owner thereupon sold hunting rights to sportsmen for $25 each, which effectively stopped the propagation of silver, golden, green and copper pheasants.

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