In 1890 Eugene Schieffelin, a member of the American Acclimatization Society, released 100 European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) into Central Park so that a breeding population might colonize and expand. He had done this several times before with other birds but with limited success. So what is the American Acclimatization Society and why was Eugene Schieffelin introducing starlings to Central Park?
Eugene Schieffelin, a drug manufacturer and Shakespeare enthusiast, intended to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings to the American landscape (apparently collecting stamps wasn’t his thing). The starling was mentioned in the play Henry IV in relation to it’s ability to mimic and how that ability could be used for dark deeds, “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”. Schieffelin was doing this through the guise of the American Acclimatization Society, a group that set out to introduce European flora and fauna in the United States for cultural and economic purposes. The organization was inspired a French society with similar convictions.
Unlike his previous introductions the starling did very well in Central Park. So well that you now find them throughout North America. Starlings are adaptable omnivores that are comfortable both in the town and the country. They are known to swarm together in large flocks and “attack” lawns for insects but they will also feast on crops when given the chance and are known to cause serious crop damage. In addition, starlings will claim the nests of other bird as their own. They have also been known to disrupt air traffic when flying in large flocks and are vectors for disease. The list of grievances goes on and on and it is safe to say they are probably one of the least liked birds in North America.
A note on the illustrations: Next to the starling are the nightingale and skylark, both popular Shakespearean birds. The costume on the starling is a bit of stretch for Elizabethan times and the skylark looks like he spent a bit too much time in Ye Old Ale House. That being said, they are illustrations of birds in clothing so I was a bit creative with their design. My inspiration for this post came from seeing a few starlings loitering on my lawn just outside of my studio window. I began to think about their ecological and economic impacts and the history of their introduction. That led to my illustrations of Shakespearean birds.
If you would like to know more about European Starlings go to: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/European_Starling/lifehistory
If you would like to know more about the Birds of Shakespeare go to: http://www.acobas.net/teaching/shakespeare/masters/
These images are available via Redbubble.