YORK COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — You can thank the American Acclimatization Society for these knock-down, drag-out bird fights. The commonly accepted story of why it happened, though, may be, well, a flight of fancy.
The American Acclimatization Society was one of many such societies that sprang up around the world in the 1800s. Their goal, as expressed in the ACA charter, was to add “such foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting” to the Americas. Their efforts would turn the European Starling (Sturnus vulgarus) into the poster child for invasive species.
In 1890 and 1891, the society released 100 European starlings in New York City. The oft-told tale is that society wanted to populate the Americas with every bird mentioned by William Shakespeare. The problem with that story? Apparently, no contemporary sources mention it. It might well be nothing but an urban legend, and suburban legend, and rural legend. It’s certainly spread as far as the starlings themselves.
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Those original 100 starlings were fruitful and multiplied. Boy, did they multiply! It’s now estimated over 200 million starlings fill the skies of the Americas. They can be found all the way from Mexico to Alaska.
They did that at the expense of a lot of native bird species. Biologists point to the starling as a factor in the decline of bluebirds, red-headed woodpeckers, purple martins, and sapsuckers, taking over prime nesting holes in trees. And as our video demonstrates, when starlings move in on a food source (in this case a small pile of mealworms) no one else gets near it. If there’s no one else to fight, these pugnacious birds square off against each other.
They also do roughly one billion dollars in damage to agriculture every years, everything from eating freshly planted seeds to stripping fruit off trees, to eating grain used to feed cattle.
Starlings also have the dubious distinction of causing the worst bird strike crash in American aviation history. In 1960, a flock of starlings flew into a plane’s engines as it took off from Boston’s Logan Airport. When it crashed into the harbor, 62 people died.
It’s really not surprising, then, that people don’t think well of starlings. In fact, it’s one of the few bird species in America with no legal protections. But is it really fair to blame starlings for their success? Like most so-called “invasive” species, they didn’t “invade” anything. Something, usually a human something, picked them up, either by accident or design and transported them to their new homes. And considering we still do it, think spotted lanternflies, emerald ash borers, snakehead fish, Chestnut blight, nutrias, zebra mussels, and pythons in the Everglades, we’re not in a position to sneer at the blind stupidity of our ancestors.
Is there anything good to say about starlings? Well, while it doesn’t really balance the crop damage, they do scarf up a lot of annoying insects, including another “invasive”, the gypsy moth.
They are also phenomenal mimics. They imitate other birds, humans, even things like car alarms and ringing telephones. In fact, it was their talent for mimicry that got them on the “Birds of Shakespeare” list. The one and only time The Bard of Avon mentions starlings is in Henry IV Part I, Act 1, Scene III. The character Hotspur, who is enraged at the King for not ransoming his brother-in-law Mortimer, who’s being held captive in Wales (did you follow all that?) fantasizes about revenge:
…I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
If Shakespeare was alive today and looking at the invasive species issue, he might well paraphrase one of his other famous lines: “The fault is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”