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A PLAGUE OF STARLINGS
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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The worst lines in English poetry—from the point of view of bluebirds, flickers and bird watchers, at least—are in Shakespeare's King Henry IV, Part I, Act I, Scene 3. Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, is held for ransom by outlaws in Wales. Young Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, is married to Mortimer's sister Kitty. He wants King Henry to ransom Mortimer. The king refuses (Mortimer has a claim to his throne) and with fine Elizabethan eloquence tells Hotspur to shut up. "Let me not hear you speak of Mortimer," he says, and exits. Now gallant Hotspur, fresh from a victory in which 10,000 dead Scots are piled in heaps on the battlefield, explodes in turn. "Speak of Mortimer? Zounds! I will speak of him." Not quite ready to rebel, Hotspur plans to sneak up on the king while he is asleep and holler "Mortimer!" in his ear. Then he has a better idea. Starlings are mimics. They have no song of their own but imitate other birds and can be trained to repeat words. So Hotspur, pacing back and forth, says:

I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
.

Quite a plan; a starling croaking "Mortimer" would give the king—or anybody—a turn.

But Hotspur never has a chance to carry out his project, and Shakespeare never mentioned starlings again. There are 725 references to birds in his plays and many others in his poems. Nightingales, swans, eagles, doves and crows are mentioned often. The starling ranks with the loon and the osprey in being mentioned only once. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1890, almost 300 years after Shakespeare wrote King Henry IV, 60 starlings were released in Central Park in New York as a direct result of Hotspur's speech, and from these, and another shipment the following spring, all the starlings in North America are descended.

The man who released the birds was Eugene Schieffelin, an elegant and eccentric figure in New York high society. The date was March 16, a cold and disagreeable Sunday, with the early morning temperature at 25�. Schieffelin hoped to bring into the U.S. all the birds Shakespeare mentioned that were not native to North America. If he could have foreseen the results he might very well have made an exception in the case of the starling. For there are now more starlings in the U.S. than almost any other species, and all the evidence indicates they will soon be the most numerous birds in the land.

Schieffelin lived at the time in patrician comfort on Madison Avenue near 65th Street, a short block from the woods of Central Park. He was lean, handsome, aristocratic, with thin features, a prominent nose and a thick drooping mustache. He is given passing mention in guidebooks to American land birds when they take up, sometimes with ill-concealed bitterness, the task of identifying the starling.

Schieffelin had a profound influence on theories of bird behavior, on government legislation affecting birds and on the variety of game birds U.S. hunters are allowed to shoot. He has fallen into undeserved obscurity, as have other 19th century bird fanciers. They imported charming birds like skylarks and German songbirds, or ones that are challenging to hunt, like Chinese pheasants. It is the intention here to give these men a modest measure of historic justice, and their names and deeds will be recorded in due course. But first, to understand the risks of importing birds, a preliminary look should be taken at Schieffelin's starlings.

It's hard to find anyone with a kind word to say for starlings. Francis of Assisi, if he ever tangled with them, might have been tempted to whittle himself a slingshot. They have been called cocky, belligerent, disagreeable, aggressive, dirty, foul, filthy and just plain rotten. Ever since Schieffelin brought them in they have been leaving their mark on public buildings; on one occasion 11 tons of starling dung had to be scraped off the dome of the state capitol in Springfield, Ill. Starlings eat a great many weevils, stinkbugs, grasshoppers, caterpillars and beetles, but native birds had been doing so for thousands of years before the starlings arrived and needed no help from pushy strangers.

There are about 110 species of starlings in the world, but the only one in North America is the European starling, Sturnus vulgaris, which until Schieffelin went to work ranged from Great Britain to parts of Mongolia. The starling averages 8�" in length and has a lustrous metallic sheen to its greenish-black, lightly spotted plumage. It has a yellowish-white bill and short legs set wide apart, which give it a bowlegged appearance. Starlings walk rather than hop, placing one foot in front of the other in a way that makes them appear pigeon-toed. They have a peculiar swinging gait, as though they were shouldering someone off a sidewalk. They travel in flocks, and when they feed along the ground they walk fast, all heading in the same direction, staying close together, and moving with a purposeful, disciplined and deliberate air; no grazing or straying, just eating and hurrying along in search of mischief.

They seem to dislike rather than fear mankind. The veteran bird watcher and drama critic Brooks Atkinson, whose bluebirds were driven away by starlings, wrote that the victorious starlings perched on his chimney and snarled at him when he passed by. If these tone-deaf creatures could sing—an appalling thought—the tune would be "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better." Instead of being frightened when a human being comes along, a flock of starlings shows off. They swoop, dive and wheel, executing right-angle turns like figure skaters. These movements are intermixed with Icecapade glides and swift undulating dips and surges, all performed in such densely packed, wingtip-close masses and at such high speed that signals of changed direction from one bird to another are impossible. They seem rehearsed, programmed.

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