Eugene Scheifflin

The Literally, Literary Story Behind the ‘Ubiquitous’ Starling

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By Ken Zurski

In 1890, a man named Eugene Scheiffelin, a member of the American Acclimation Society, a group designed to exchange plants and animals from another part of the world to the United States, imported about 40 starlings from Europe to New York City.

While Scheiffelin’s reasoning was scientific, it was also borderline fanatic. He loved the writings of William Shakespeare. In fact, he loved Shakespeare so much that he planned to transplant all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to America. Starlings were native to Europe, Asia, and Africa and had not yet been introduced to North America. “I’ll have a Starling [that] shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer;” Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV.

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Schefflein released about 60 starlings in New York’s Central Park and the following year released 40 more. He really had no way of knowing what effect the birds would have on the ecosystem, good or bad.

Or did he?

About thirty years earlier a man from Brooklyn named Nicolas Pike imported a group of house sparrows from England with good intentions it seemed. Soon, the birds multiplied and spread throughout North America. At first their presence was helpful. They ate caterpillars of certain moths which frequently threatened city shade trees. But their numbers became unbearably large. They were, however, considered friendly birds.

The starlings, because of their aggressive and destructive nature, would be much worse.

Like the sparrow, within a decade at least, tens of millions of starlings plagued the countryside. Today in the Book of North American Birds, the European Starling (whose name still playfully carries its immigration status) is found in nearly all of inhabitable North America and year round, unlike the common robin, which is seasonal in many parts of the country.

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“The starling is ubiquitous,” The New York Times wrote in 1990, the 100th anniversary of the starling in America, “with its purple and green iridescent plumage and its rasping, insistent call. It has distinguished itself as one of the costliest and noxious birds on our continent.”

Costly because it eats – no, hordes – seeds and fruits.  Oftentimes this is done in packs of thousands that can devour whole fields in a single day.

Noxious because its droppings are linked to numerous diseases not only to animals but humans too.

Of course starlings eat insects, lots of insects, perhaps more than any other bird species in the U.S. But that doesn’t offset their flair for destruction and overall annoyance to farmers, gardeners and city dwellers.

“Starlings,” wrote an ornithologist, “do nothing in moderation.”

That would include depositing – or the aforementioned “dropping” – of their waste. Since they eat so much, they go and go and go (as in the amount of excrement discharged).  And because they roost in large numbers and in well populated areas, they usually “go” in places – and on things – we least want them too.

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Schefflein died in 1906 and for a time enjoyed the pleasures of seeing Starlings in and around New York City’s Central Park, but only Central Park.  This, however, meant that his plan to migrate the birds throughout the country was failing. Then in 1896, a nesting of starlings was discovered in the eaves of the Museum of Natural History, which was directly across the street from Central Park. Then in 1900, a letter to the editor of The New York Times asked, “Can you inform me what sort of bird it is which frequents this neighborhood?”

The Starlings were on the loose.

Shakespeare would have been proud, Schefflein must have thought at the time.

He had no idea.

Today, there are roughly 200 million starlings in North America.

Check your car’s windshield. You’ll see.

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