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european_starling_MG_0745Starling photo by Lloyd Spitalnik

Birds: Starling

 

Before the turn of the Twentieth century, there was an American aristocrat who introduced the Starling to the US. He was from a long line of “do-gooders.” In his case, despite noble goals and ideals, his “gift” to the US had some disastrous unintended consequences. Importing any specimen from Outer Space or another continent is a tricky endeavor. The web of problems that arise from the imported species, germ, agent, or bug can be catastrophic. No good deed goes unpunished! 

 

The history of the Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is forever linked to a distinguished family of German descent, named the Schieffelin’s.  Researching the Schieffelin family is like eavesdropping on the idle rich at play. Their obsession with birds is just one small part of the family story.  Patriarchs in the family were gold prospectors, architects, chemists, pharmacists, manufacturers and pedophiles.   

 

 

Schieffelin

 

I heard the story of importing Starling to the States from Richard “Dick” Schieffelin, who lived in New Haven, Connecticut.  Dick Schieffelin was heir to the fortunes amassed by his family’s drug company in New York City. 

 

Dick lived on a quiet residential street in New Haven, not far from the Yale University campus.  With his inherited bankroll he curried favors and companionship from among the football players and other varsity athletes at Yale. Young athletes, who were not born with silver spoons in their mouths, were somehow introduced to Dick and he gave them financial favors. Somehow Schieffelin became the unofficial “sponsor” for many young athletes at the predominantly male Yale. Dick was one of those “sports boosters” who we read about in the tabloids. Living on the margins, they were part of the “way things were done,” especially in schools like the Ivy’s which did not have athletic scholarships per se.  These boosters have since been reviled at colleges across the country and they seem to have all but disappeared. However, “in the day” these boosters were more prevalent than many are willing to admit, especially in the current hostile environment. 

 

Not your typical Jerry-Sandusky-type child molester, Dick Schieffelin claimed to be a gentleman. Rather than the “beer and brots” on paper plates and wrestling in the shower, Dick was man who loved sumptuous five-course meals, starting with soup, served on ironed linen monogrammed tablecloths and enjoyed with sterling silver flatware, fine crystal and china. Fine champagne and wine with the meal. Apres dinner, the beds had 1000-count Egyptian linen sheets and down duvet comforters.  

 

A graduate of Hobart-William Smith College in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Dick Schieffelin was a collector of young men and hippos.  The hippo was Dick’s unofficial alliteratively-named mascot of Hobart College.  His house had hundreds hippopotami. He had hippo drawings, statues, photographs, stuffed toys and books. The rooms were virtual zoos or mud pits of hippos in every pastel color.  But that is wallowing in the weeds! Let’s get back to the story of the noxious Starling.

 

Sturnus_vulgaris1Starling on barbed wire

Blame it on Shakespeare

 

In 1890 Eugene Schieffelin, who was Dick’s grandfather, imported the first Starling to the US from England. He blithely captured, imported and released sixty of them in Central Park, Manhattan.  Schieffelin seemed to have more dollars than sense. An active member of the American Acclimatization Society, [1] Schieffelin was convinced by like-minded men that they could control plants and animals from other countries. These men systematically imported various species to see if they could self-propagate and survive in the US.  


Schieffelin was an eccentric chemist and drug manufacturer who had settled in New York to sell his potions, lotions and concoctions to the public. Schieffelin was also an Anglophile: he loved William Shakespeare’s sonnets, plays, and poems. He systematically went through all of Shakespeare’s work and recorded the names of the birds he found there. His long-term goal was to introduce all of those bird species to the US by importing them, breeding them, and watching them flourished.  His avian collection was the stuff of romantic fascination. Among his menagerie, Schieffelin wanted to import Sparrow, Skylark, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Nightingale and Starling.

 

In a valiant effort to reduce the clouds of bugs that infested the swampy areas of New York City, Schieffelin and other members of the American Acclimatization Society (AAS) imported the English Sparrow to Central Park. The bugs, slightly diminished, easily survived the invasion and so did the Sparrow (by the millions). The initial success of the AAS fed their appetite for more tinkering with bird geography.

 

Schieffelin had a particular attraction to the Starling: he felt their purple and green iridescent plumage was strikingly beautiful. He imported five dozen Starling, released them in Central Park. During the cold winter of 1890 all 60 of the species died. He should have stopped there, but a persistent mad-scientist, he imported another passel of the birds the next spring. Schieffelin imported 40 more Starling in 1891 and again many of them died; however, he noted that one pair survived, nesting in the eaves of the Museum of Natural History near Central Park. He was jubilant in his success. For the first six years of their lives, Schieffelin’s introduced Starling pair confined their habitat to Manhattan and their population growth was modest. After that time though, with an aggressive streak in their breed and no natural predators, the Starling population exploded.

 

By 1928 the Starling had expanded its habitat as far west as the Mississippi River. Fifteen years later they were found breeding in every state from New York to California. By the mid-1950’s it was estimated that there were over 50 million Starling in the US. It seemed as if Schieffelin had a more sinister intent; his Starlings have been called an inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds.  Rather than the growing the sweet song birds of Shakespeare, his creation wrecked havoc in the US. Their numbers and range soon was only limited by the Oceans, as they have adapted to every climate, every terrain, every city and every farm in North America from Alaska to Florida, and Canada to Mexico.

 

starlings-e1276713669193 

Today the Starling is one of the most prolific birds in North America. As one ornithologist noted, “Starlings do nothing in moderation.”  Even its scientific name, Sturnus vulgaris, hints at its vulgarity as a species, to say nothing of its table manners. They are willing and able to eat anything and they reproduce with startling vigor.

 

Roosting together in enormous flocks of up to a million birds, their conflagrations have a few appropriate collective noun names.  Starling gatherings are called a MURMURATION, a FILTH, a CHATTERING or an AFFLICTION.  In many ways all of these collective nouns seem perfectly appropriate.  A murmuration of Starling can devour vast stores of seeds and fruit.  In a single day, a chattering of Starling can eat up to 20 tons of potatoes and other crops, which more than offsets any bugs they may devour on the side.

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What is not eaten by the Starling gets covered by their droppings.  A filth of Starling poop is linked to histoplasmosis, a fungal lung ailment that afflicts farm workers, taxoplasmosis, which is dangerous to pregnant women, and Newcastle disease, which kills poultry. And an affliction of Starling has been known to take down airplanes.  In 1960 a Lockheed Electra plummeted to the ground only seconds after taking off from Logan Airport in Boston.  It was reported that at lift off 10,000 Starling had flown directly up toward the plane and were sucked into the engines, crippling its thrust and lift and causing the plane to crash land.  Sixty-seven people died in the disaster. [2]

 

One feature of the Starling is that despite occasionally flying into jet engines, they are nearly indestructible.  No matter what remedies have been sought to eliminate a chunk of the birds’ population, more Starling appear the next year.  The efforts to get rid of the Starling pests have cost the Federal Government and many local municipalities hundreds of millions of dollars, to no avail. 

 

Starlings seem to be among those dreaded invasive species that are here to stay.  We can’t forgive you, Eugene Schieffelin!  Your good deed backfired, big-time. Lest anyone doubt the power of uncontrolled growth, we only need to consider cancer, kudzu, English Ivy, and Starlings.

 

 Colourful_starling


[1] The American Acclimatization Society was a group that aimed to help exchange plants and animals from one part of the world to another. In the 19th century, such acclimatization societies were fashionable and supported by the scientific knowledge and beliefs of that era. The ill-effects that non-native species could have on the local ecosystem were not yet known.

[2] 100 Years of the Starlingfor Time magazine, by Ted Gup. Published: September 1, 1990.

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