Bioinvasion: From Old World to New
By Chad Cohen, National Geographic, January 23, 2001
<<Shakespeare compared sparrows to angels that could awaken dreamers from feathery beds. He mused on larks singing at the gates of heaven and the love songs of robins. Birds of all feathers flutter throughout the works of the bard. From the majesty of their flight to the sweet sounds of their songs, the imagery they evoked captured the imagination of generations. So much so that, in 1890, an eccentric New Yorker and Shakespeare fanatic named Eugene Schieffelin felt compelled to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare to the United States.
“In the 1800s, there was a lot of this, a lot of societies bringing things over,” says Joe DiCostanzo, a bird specialist for the American Museum of Natural History. DiCostanzo says Schieffelin was not the only person to share the flora and fauna of the Old World with the new. Immigrants tried to introduce all kinds of birds, plants, and animals in the late 19th century to remind them of home. “Most of [the bio-introductions] don’t work; most of them die out; they just don’t fit in,” says DiCostanzo. “But some of them did. Unfortunately some of them did too well, things like starlings, I see starlings flying by us right now.”
The starling’s ability to mimic human speech earned the bird this cameo in Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I’ll holler ‘Mortimer!’ Nay I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.
” It is the only mention of the starling in all of Shakespeare. Yet it was enough to inspire Schieffelin to import 60 of the fruitful birds to the United States and release them one March day in New York’s Central Park. “The very first nests were here, under the eves of [New York City’s] Museum of Natural History,” says DiCostanzo, “And from those first few starlings, [which] might be considered the Adam and Eve of North American starlings, we now have 200 million.” These 200 million—together with their other feathered friends like house sparrows, and pigeons—make up the majority of the birds most Americans see everyday. None of these are native to the United States. The invaders compete for food with native birds like purple martens and eastern bluebirds, which have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Since the locals tend to fly south for the winter, the foreign birds that are here perenially have an advantage when it comes to nesting spots. “There’s no place for the native birds to come back after their migration,” explains DiCostanzo. “They just get forced out and if they can’t nest, eventually the population is going to go down. And that’s been one of the big problems. I don’t know how [Schieffelin] would feel knowing that the bird he introduced with just 60 birds in central park has become 200 million,” concludes DiCostanza. “He might feel he’s accomplished his goal of bringing this bird of Shakespeare over here. The starling is probably more familiar to people now than Shakespeare...in a lot of the country.”>>