A murmuration against starlings

Like a large school of fish, a murmuration of starlings hangs closely together, forcing the birds to move in waves by their close proximity. (Photo by Chris Lovelock)

Eugene Schieffelin (1827-1906) was a scion of an old, prosperous and well-connected New York City family, comfortably supported by the drug manufacturing company that his grandfather had founded. He had plenty of time and funds to pursue his interests, which included Shakespeare and ornithology. Part of his mission in life, allegedly, was to ensure that every species of bird mentioned in the works of the Bard of Avon would be represented in the New World. He belonged to an organization called the American Acclimatization Society, one of the most benighted groups of would-be citizen scientists ever to blight Planet Earth.

In the 19th century, even among the highly educated, the concept of invasive species hadn’t yet jelled. In fact, the members of the American Acclimatization Society were cultural elitists who believed that introducing non-native animals and plants from places they regarded as more civilized would “improve” wild and wooly North America. Such attitudes never bode well, and the Shakespearean birds project was no exception.

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Schieffelin got involved in a campaign to establish house sparrows in Central Park in the 1850s and ’60s. These birds succeeded in carving out a modest niche in the local ecosystem, though not to the point where they became pests. Attempts with several other Old World species, including skylarks, bullfinches and chaffinches, failed to take hold. But in 1890 and ’91, Schieffelin took his enthusiasm too far. Accounts differ as to exactly how many European starlings he released over those two years, ranging from 100 individuals to 80 breeding pairs. In any case, they were more than enough to constitute, as we can now recognize in retrospect, an act of ecoterrorism-by-ignorance.

Spreading their territory by about 50 miles each year, Sturnus vulgaris had occupied the entire East Coast by 1920. The federal Lacey Act, passed by Congress in 1900, made it possible for the Secretary of the Interior to ban the importation of potentially harmful species, and starlings were soon added to the list; but it was already too late. Starlings first crossed the Mississippi around 1928, reached California by 1942, colonized the West Coast by the 1960s and reached the interior of Alaska by 1978. Today, starlings are on the verge of outnumbering humans in North America.

As with many non-native species, part of the problem was that the same predators that control starling populations in Europe and western Asia did not co-evolve with them over here. And starlings are adaptable to a broad range of habitat, from seacoast cliffs to farm fields and meadows to urban environments. They’re aggressive, bullying other birds out of their nesting sites. One study showed half the nests of red-bellied woodpeckers being commandeered by starlings by the end of the breeding season. Competition from starlings has caused the population of some bird species, notably sapsuckers, to fall off.

(Von Wright Brothers | Rawpixel)

Though they prefer insects, starlings are omnivorous, and they soon became a threat to grain and fruit harvests, currently estimated as causing upwards of $800 million in crop damage in the US annually. They have a tendency to flock together in huge numbers, filling the air with raucous chatter; the ground underneath their favored roosting sites can become covered in guano a foot thick, caustic enough to kill the trees. These droppings are also often contaminated with the parasites that cause histoplasmosis and toxoplasmosis. Ah, but when these unlovely birds take to the air en masse – that can become a thing of mesmerizing beauty.

Like a large school of fish, a murmuration of starlings hangs closely together, forcing the birds to move in waves by their close proximity. In ancient Rome, augurs seeking to divine auspicious prospects for major decisions would study the cascading movements of such murmurations. Watching them is a sport of sorts in Scandinavia and the British Isles, where starling populations are well-established but limited by their ecological niche. In North America, where their spread is unchecked, starling flocks in flight can number in the millions. Murmurations are an awe-inspiring visual phenomenon that has become ever more common in the Hudson Valley in recent decades.

A pair of Canadian scientists recently established that the wing shape of the species had already evolved to become rounder since its arrival here, making it easier for individual birds to make the tight turns required to move smoothly with the murmuration. They have not, however, adapted to the proximity of jet engines, and airports make primo starling habitat. Reports by airline pilots of collisions are regular occurrences. In 1960, 62 people were killed when a murmuration of some 10,000 starlings was sucked into the engines of an Eastern Air Lines flight taking off from Boston, plunging the plane into the bay.

Efforts so far to control the starling overpopulation problem in North America have proven fruitless. Washington, DC has tried many approaches to deter the birds from roosting and defecating all over its monumental buildings: balloons, owl and hawk effigies, recordings of starling distress calls, grease, electrified wires, itching powder – all to no avail. Nevada and California have mounted wide-scale poisoning campaigns, but the poisons persist in the environment, and the birds keep repopulating. During the Great Depression, the US Department of Agriculture even tried to persuade semistarved Americans that starling breasts, “soaked in a soda-salt solution for 12 hours and then parboiled in water, which is afterwards discarded, may be used in a meat pie that compares fairly well with one made of blackbirds or English sparrows.”

While we wait for less-picky native predators to adapt to the opportunities presented by this enormous unexploited food supply, the only thing to do is to try to appreciate starlings’ talents. They have been renowned for their ability to mimic –not only other birdcalls, but also music and human speech – at least as far back as the 11th-century Welsh epic the Mabinogi, in which the heroine Branwen sends a talking starling to her brothers Bran and Manawydan begging them to rescue her from her cruel husband. The Shakespeare citation that inspired Schieffelin’s ill-conceived plan occurs in Henry IV Part I, Act 1, Scene 3: The king forbids Hotspur to mention the name of his hated brother-in-law Mortimer, and Hotspur responds: “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him, to keep his anger still in motion.”

In A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, 18th-century Irish novelist Laurence Sterne relates overhearing a plaintive child’s voice repeatedly saying “I can’t get out” in a building in Paris. The captive turned out to be a caged starling, which Sterne later liberated from its owner for the price of a bottle of brandy. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart kept a pet starling that he alleged could whistle along with his Piano Concerto #17 in G. The composer wrote a fragment of the starling’s song into the piece, and upon its demise, he wrote a poem about the bird and gave it an elaborate funeral.

Props to all those who can perceive the meager charms of Sturnus vulgaris, such as iconic environmentalist author Rachel Carson, who praised the bird’s ravenous appetite for insects. But many of us will find more resonance in Ted Gupsept’s 1990 New York Times essay marking the centennial of the starling’s introduction to the City: “It has distinguished itself as one of the costliest and most noxious birds on our continent,” he wrote. “By the mid-1950s they numbered more than 50 million. Schieffelin’s mission had become more appropriate to a work of Hitchcock than of Shakespeare.”