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Enormous numbers of ringnecked pheasants were being shot illegally, but they still increased beyond anyone's expectations. When the prohibition against killing them expired and the first season began, some 50,000 pheasants were killed on opening day. The figure was questioned as unbelievable, but a correspondent for the Portland Oregonian telegraphed his paper, "A veritable cannonade is being kept up in this vicinity today." The season was long—Aug. 1 to Nov. 15—and market hunters put so many birds on sale that the markets were flooded. Tales of ringnecked-pheasant hunting around Lebanon, Ore. reached Eastern sportsmen and some 15 hunters regularly made the 3,000-mile train trip to be present on opening day. For the past half-century or so U.S. hunters have been taking from 10 to 12 million pheasants a year.
Schieffelin undoubtedly knew of Denny's overwhelmingly successful importation. So did Frank Dekum, a German-American businessman who knew Denny and reasoned that if Chinese pheasants could flourish in Oregon, so could German songbirds. Dekum was a stalwart son of German immigrants in St. Louis. At 16 he left home for the California gold fields. Later he moved to Portland, where he was the proprietor of a combined fruit store, confectionery and bakery and became president of the Portland Savings Bank and one of the wealthiest men in the city. One-third of Portland's 50,000 inhabitants were German immigrants, and as a leader of the German colony Dekum put up most of the money for the German Song Bird Society.
The first shipment cost a formidable $1,400. But unlike. Schieffelin's solitary effort, the Oregon importation was a community enterprise. Collections were made, and admission charged when the caged birds were exhibited. The first birds arrived in poor condition. A second shipment was ordered. Charles Pfluger, a real-estate dealer and agent for German steamship lines, reported sizable numbers brought to Portland at different times: 20 pairs of goldfinches, 20 pairs of parrot crossbills, 40 pairs each of goldfinches, chaffinches and siskins, 35 pairs of green linnets, five pairs of robin redbreasts, 10 pairs of woodlarks, 35 pairs of nightingales—nearly 500 birds in all. Another report added 35 pairs of starlings and 20 pairs of European black-capped warblers.
The skylarks and woodlarks were turned loose in the country where Denny's pheasants had done so well. All the others were released in the city park in Portland. The idea was that German birds should be singing where the homesick immigrants could hear them. For many years the birds were reported to be flourishing. Pfluger, who corresponded with Schieffelin, insisted that almost all the birds were doing splendidly. He wrote that the "useful and lovely bird, the skylark" had increased wonderfully and could be heard singing in meadows all over Oregon. While it seems to be true that skylarks and starlings survived for a few years before they vanished, all the others disappeared, as had the imports in Cincinnati and New York.
But Schieffelin did not know that and increased his shipments. In sum, 20 or 30 species released over 20 years in Oregon, Ohio and New York had completely failed before Schieffelin's starlings at last took hold. The first report that their numbers were increasing came in the spring of 1891. Directly across Central Park from Schieffelin's neighborhood was the huge new brick building of the Museum of Natural History. One day a man named Walter Granger was clambering around the roof and spotted a starling nest in a corner. That was enough for Schieffelin, who hurriedly brought over another shipment of foreign birds, including 40 more starlings. He released these on April 25, 1891, a fine spring morning; the birds promptly disappearing from sight. They were unreported until the following spring, when Granger again found a nesting pair on the museum roof. (Later that spring a pair of newly imported skylarks built a nest in a corner of the museum.) In those days the 840 acres of Central Park were densely wooded and any number of birds could live there undetected, so it is possible other starlings were nesting somewhere else. But a sharp-eyed contributor to the Oologist Monthly Magazine (oology is the study of birds' eggs) spent the month of May 1893 counting birds in Central Park and did not see a single starling. He sighted 68 other species but none of the tough Sturnus vulgaris. In that same month 15 thrushes brought over from England were turned loose in the park, adding to the 35 pairs previously released there. Published accounts did not say who imported them, but it could only have been Schieffelin. Whatever mistakes he made about birds, he certainly knew his Shakespeare: the thrush appears in A Winter's Tale:
With heigh! with heigh! the thrash and the jay
Nothing more was ever heard of the thrushes. Schieffelin's skylarks and nightingales also disappeared forever. Then in the spring of 1898 a boy in Brooklyn threw a stone at a bird not previously known in that borough and killed it. Two more of the mysterious visitors were shot by Brooklynites who wanted to see what breed they were. They sent the bodies to Dr. C. Hart Merrian, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. They were Sturnus vulgaris, the first to have ventured outside Central Park. The following spring Dr. George Bird Grinnell, a celebrated naturalist of the time, was riding his horse near Riverside Drive in New York when he spotted a bird he had never seen walking around a patch of lawn. "The bird was black, with a white bill and a short tail," he reported. "It was a European starling, unless I am very much mistaken...I shall endeavor to investigate the matter further."
Later that summer a physician who was also an amateur ornithologist discovered that a flock of starlings had taken over a tower of Boys High School in Brooklyn. About the same time a man named Wilmot Townsend, who lived a few miles from the school, heard a strange and disagreeable wheezy, wheezy, wheezy sound. Investigating, he found a flock of 20 starlings, and must have been surprised, for propagandists for bird importations had given the impression that starlings had a pleasing and melodious call. The bird was still so little known that Townsend's report was news. He said that "starlings seem to hold aloof and do not fraternize with other birds."
It apparently did not occur to laymen or scientists that it was the other way around—other birds did not fraternize with starlings. This was not inhospitality but plain common sense. After overpopulating the museum and Boys High, the starlings were hard pressed for nesting sites. They were soon laying eggs on barn doors and window shutters and in crevices of public buildings, and appropriating the nests of other species. They were especially pleased with the handsome birdhouses people put up for purple martins and bluebirds.
Their attachment to bluebird houses led to the most disconcerting discovery of the whole starling invasion. It was generally believed (it still is) that birds and other wild creatures are motivated by practical concerns and do not have such human failings as envy, spite, political enmity, racial bias or conscious trouble-making. Birds fight other birds that threaten their nests or food supply, and they may sing to assert their right to their territory, but they do not go out of their way to browbeat other birds just for the pleasure of it. But that is what starlings did to bluebirds: they just perched nearby, staring, wheezing and whistling. The first extensive study of the starling made by the U.S. Government ( Department of Agriculture Bulletin No. 868) said, "It seems almost as if the bird was actuated more by a morbid pleasure of annoying its neighbor than by any necessity arising from a scarcity of nesting sites."