On March 6th, 1890, a man stood out in the sleeting cold of New York’s Central Park with an empty wooden crate in his arms. His name was Eugene Schieffelin, a rich eccentric from Manhattan who had made his money in pharmaceuticals, and he had just released sixty European starlings into the skies over North America. Later that spring, the first nesting pair would be confirmed, coincidentally making their home under the eaves of the Museum of Natural History. In the next few years, Schieffelin would release another forty birds to augment the city’s growing population. Today, the starling is reviled as one of the most abundant invasive species on the continent with their numbers stretching above 200 million and their range spanning from Alaska to Florida.
The motivations for Eugene Schieffelin to release such a prolific invader into the American skies were fanciful at best. Years earlier, he had become one of the leaders of the American Acclimatization Society, which was officially formed in New York City in 1871. The Society’s stated goal was to research, acquire, and introduce European and exotic species of interest and use to the wild North American biosphere. The Society modelled itself after the French Societé Zoologique d’Acclimatation, founded in Paris in 1854, and parallel organizations in Great Britain and its colonies, which sought to bring familiar and desirable species to imperial holdings across the globe.
As an avid lover of Shakespeare, Schieffelin wished to populate North America with all the birds mentioned in the bard’s works. Starlings, while being the most successful of his pet projects, were not unique; he also was the father of failed introductions of the skylark and song thrush during this same period. Earlier, in the 1850s, he was involved in the successful colonization of the English sparrow. At the time, very little regulation oversaw such introductions, and rogue releases of anything from brown trout to birds occurred somewhat regularly in the U.S. In the 1860s, a pair of sparrows could be purchased for 50 cents to be released into the environment. The American Acclimatization Society sought to mimic its chic European counterparts by bringing European favorites to the New World, and Schieffelin himself sought to replicate the ideal of English avifauna through the lens of Shakespeare in the air above his New York home. Released on a whim to “Europeanize” the New York parks, the starling would come to embody the complex relationship many Americans had with colonization, acculturation, and their own immigrant heritage around the turn of the twentieth century.
The English sparrow, the first of the successful avian pioneers, had been released several decades earlier than the starling, in 1852 at Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. Initially heralded as the solution to control insect populations in American cities, the sparrow became the darling of New York. A New York Times correspondent writing in the 1860s compared a Manhattan release site to Jamestown. The poet William Cullen Bryant penned an ode to the sparrow, liking it to the brave European decedents who had conquered the continent in poetic verse: “A winged settler has taken his place with Teutons and men of the Celtic race; He has followed their path to our hemisphere.” Similarly, when the starling first began to roost in the trees of Central Park, it was admired as a brave pioneer, come to a New World to establish itself and improve the land. Frank Chapman, an advocate of the starling, described its colonization in a more contemporary analogy when he wrote “nature has accorded him his papers and he exercises all the privileges of citizenship.” Initially, both the sparrow and the starling were seen as improvements to a wild and non-European New World, much like those European Americans responsible for their release. Eventually, however, these newcomers would take on the mantel of the invading immigrant rather than the noble pioneer, parroting the wider wariness of the nation as more recent arrivals began to pour into the United States.
By 1900, it had become apparent that both the sparrow and starling were a detriment to the environment, and furthermore, that both species were multiplying rapidly. The starling had spread across the eastern seaboard, into Canada, and across the Midwest. Flocks in the thousands gathered, causing crop damage and soiling nesting areas. As such invasive disasters arose in North America and other European holdings across the globe, acclimatization societies fell out of vogue. Similarly disastrous incidents with rabbits and foxes occurred in Australia during the late nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century in the United States, such obsessions with European fashion and fauna had fallen by the wayside as Americans became more suspicious of European imports.
The starling, being a cavity dweller, began to outcompete other native birds that made their homes in nooks and holes of trees. The eastern bluebird, the redheaded woodpecker, and the purple martin populations all began to noticeably suffer. Writing in 1903, naturalist Clinton G. Abbott declared that a “European invasion of America is upon us.” As Abbott troubled over the burgeoning murmurations of starlings, other Americans across the country were murmuring about similarly growing populations of European immigrants—in this case humans—who were pouring into U.S. cities from abroad. As sentiments began to turn against these immigrants, so too did the rhetoric maligning the starling. Once hailed as a prudent pioneer in a new continent, it was quickly becoming viewed as an unpleasantly fecund foreigner spreading its progeny across the land.
The New York Times, writing only several decades after it had sung the praises of these European birds, decried starlings as “those cockney aliens,” reflecting a parallel swing in a nation that only a few decades earlier had celebrated the westward expansion of its European people but by 1900 dreaded the throngs of incoming European immigrants. Owen Wister, champion of the American frontier, lamented the degradation of the eastern cities, complaining about both the avian pests present and the immigrant situation. When he wrote that the American city had become “debased and mongrel with its hordes of encroaching alien vermin” as a conclusion to his lament, it is difficult to tell whether he was referring to the starlings overhead or the newly arrived immigrants around him. Even government documents, composed by the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1928, used terminology that conflated issues of immigration and avian invasion when it assessed the spreading starlings as “bad citizens” and “undesirable aliens.” The birds that Americans had at first identified with now became the enemy as society shifted its self-identification from a nation of pioneers to a nation besieged by foreigners.
Since the turn of the twentieth century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local governments, and individuals have battled the overwhelming tide of starling expansion. In efforts to keep flocks from landing on the White House and Capitol building, live electric wires were applied to the buildings’ columns in the past. Poison is often implemented to protect crops and orchards from hungry birds. During the Great Depression, the Department of Agriculture even released a pamphlet describing how victims of the Dust Bowl could kill, prepare, and eat starlings in a pie for the double benefit of sustenance and population control. Today, it is estimated that government agencies kill an average of 1.5 million starlings every year and yet the population continues to grow exponentially, causing over $1 billion in damages each year to crops and infrastructure. The starling continues to exert its presence on the American continent as one of the most successful and notorious colonists to ever grace the New World.
Apart from its significance as a prolific invasive species and symbol of environmental tinkering, the starling and the controversy surrounding its advent in North America embodies a wider reaction to European immigration, acculturation, and the changing demographics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States. The bird, first taking on the anthropomorphism of the brave pioneer, quickly shifted to be seen as the unwanted immigrant. Overpopulating the cities and farmlands of the U.S., the starling took on all the monstrous qualities that naturalized Americans feared in the rising throngs of European immigrants making landfall on their shores. In analyzing the rhetoric surrounding the starling’s colonization, one can note the complex and contradictory relationship Americans had with their own pioneer and immigrant identities, and how new waves of immigrants at the turn of the century tested these identity narratives.
Interested in exotic species in America? Read about the introduction of camels here.
Prefer to stick with feathered friends? Learn more about English and American relations concerning eagles.
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Coates, Peter A. American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers on the Land. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Osborne, Michael. “Acclimatizing the World: A History of the Paradigmatic Colonial Science.” Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise (2000), pp. 135-151.
Todd, Kim. Tinkering with Eden: A Natural History of Exotic Species in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Co: 2002.
Zielinski, Sarah. “The Invasive Species We Can Blame On Shakespeare.” The Smithsonian Magazine: Oct. 2011.
Wonderful capture !
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