The Shakespearean Tall Tale That Shaped How We See Starlings

In 1890, a mustachioed eccentric named Eugene Schieffelin released a few dozen European starlings into New York City. His supposed goal? Introduce all the bird species mentioned in William Shakespeare’s plays to America.

More than a century later, the European starling is one of the most plentiful bird species in North America. Something like 85 million starlings inhabit this continent, from Alaska and Newfoundland all the way to Mexico. The animals are gorgeous, with polka-dot feather patterns and a purply-green sheen. They fill the skies in great numbers, flying in synchronized patterns called murmurations.

But they are also considered a pest, said to spread disease to livestock and cause $800 million worth of agricultural damage each year. The species is believed totake over their nesting cavities, leading to population declines.

Add it all up, and it makes one heck of a story about how even the tiniest of actions can trigger profound consequences. The butterfly effect, there for all to see in every roadside murmuration. A starling flaps its wings in Central Park, and around 130 years later, a woodpecker loses its nest and a dairy farmer loses their livelihood.

“If true, it would suggest that a long-dead dramatist totally reshaped the ecosystem of a foreign continent, which is a fascinating connection between literature and science,” said John MacNeill Miller, an assistant professor of English at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.

However, Dr. MacNeill and a Lauren Fugate, a student who worked with him, recently concluded that crucial parts of the story are not true. And that made them wonder: What else have scientists and naturalists gotten wrong about the European starling’s narrative? Is there more to this bird known mostly as an invasive pest?

The Bird and the Bard-Lover

Three starlings collected in Central Park, including, from left, two juveniles collected in 1892 and an adult collected in 1890, in the American Museum of Natural History’s historical collection.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Feathers of one of the European starling study skins from 1890. The museum’s starling collection includes specimens from their native, as well as introduced, range.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Dr. Miller has long been fascinated by the tale of Eugene Schieffelin. But there was a problem with the narrative.

“In all the places that I had seen this story before,” he said, “I never saw a single reliable source from the time period when this supposedly happened.”

So he and Ms. Fugate, started digging through archives and databases for any link between the Bard-lover and the bird. According to their findings, which were published in the journal Environmental Humanities in November, Schieffelin did release 40 pairs of European starlings into New York City twice in the springs of 1890 and 1891. But Ms. Fugate and Dr. Miller failed to find evidence that Schieffelin was the Shakespeare superfan he has been made out to be.

They found in an essay collection published in 1948 that Edwin Way Teale, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nature writer, was the first to link the two. He referred to Schieffelin’s “curious hobby” of introducing “all the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.”

Determined to find the source for Teale’s claim, Dr. Miller drove to the University of Connecticut to sort through a collection of Teale’s archives. (He died in 1980.) In a draft of the essay, Teale muses that perhaps Schieffelin had been influenced by a Shakespeare garden being started in Central Park around the same time — a botanical homage to the Bard that sought to nurture plants, not birds, mentioned in his plays.

However, Teale got the timing wrong. The Shakespeare Garden — which you can still visit today — wasn’t planned until a decade after Schieffelin’s death, or 22 years after he first released starlings. Therefore, the garden could not have been a factor. The final version of the essay omitted the mention of the garden but left the connection between Schieffelin and Shakespeare. This statement of fact has since been repeated again and again without challenge in magazines, newspapers of record and birding websites.

Several starlings in Fort Tryon park.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

“Long story short, we concluded that this commonplace story is mostly fictional,” Dr. Miller said.

Dr. Miller and Ms. Fugate also question whether today’s birds are uniquely descended from Schieffelin’s flocks, as is often parroted. Numerous records exist of earlier European starling introductions, starting in 1872, to locations including New York City, Ohio and even as far away as Oregon.Such releases were part of a movement at the time known as “acclimatization” where people deliberately experimented with transplanting species into new areas, either to see how they would adapt or because those species were seen as beneficial in some way.

Some tellings of the Schieffelin starling origin story note these earlier introductions but suggest that those birds failed to survive. However, wild starlings were caught in Massachusetts in 1876, far from any of the documented introductions. Likewise, there is a record of wild starlings in New Jersey in 1884. And who knows how many birds truly survived in nature beyond human notice, the researchers argue.

“From the perspective of an invasion biologist, most invasions come from multiple introductions,” said Natalie Hofmeister, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University.

In 2019, Ms. Hofmeister published a study in the journal Molecular Ecology of the European starling’s genetic variation across North America. If all the birds came from Schieffelin’s small flock, then you’d expect to see a tight genetic bottleneck in the data. Likewise, if the other, earlier introductions had been successful, that should have injected more diversity into the results. But her findings landed somewhere in between.

“It does seem like there’s a lot of ambiguity as to whether or not the New York birds were really the beginning of the starlings’ expansion,” said Ms. Hofmeister, who has a follow-up study in the works.

Hell Is Empty and All the Starlings Are Here

A scavenging starling near the southwest entrance to Central Park. Something like 85 million starlings inhabit North America — they are one of the most plentiful bird species on the continent.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Dr. Miller and Ms. Fugate also take issue with the depiction of starlings as biological terrors. As evidence, they point to a well-regarded study from 2003 that found out of 27 native cavity-nesting birds, only one showed hints of decline that might be attributed to the introduction of starlings: the small woodpeckers known as yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

Nicole Michel, director of quantitative science for the National Audubon Society, sees it differently. It’s her job to drill down into bird population data. And she says looking for declines as a result of any one variable sets “too high of a bar.”

“There are many factors out there that we know are impacting birds — cats, building collisions, pesticides,” she said. “And yet it’s very difficult to determine population level impacts.”

She added: “So do starlings affect other birds? Definitely. Are they the only ones that affect other birds? No.”

Nearly three billion birds have disappeared from North America since 1970. The European starlings here are counted among them, actually, with an estimated decline of 49 percent over the same time frame. (Starlings are also “declining rapidly” in Europe.)

Even on the downswing, with about 85 million animals, starlings are bound to create an impact. The more likely scenario is that scientists don’t know enough to see the effects of starlings, said Daniel Simberloff, a biologist at the University of Tennessee.

“We have no idea what its real impact is on insect populations, for example,” said Dr. Simberloff, who is also the editor of the journal Biological Invasions. Nor do scientists know much about more subtle but no less important impacts, such as the way starlings may affect how nutrients cycle through an ecosystem, he said.

Anti-perching spikes are used to discourage birds, including starlings, from resting near the runways and taxiways at LaGuardia Airport.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Starlings are believed to threaten native birds by taking over their nesting cavities, leading to population declines.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

One factor that’s not subtle is the way European starlings descend on feedlots and dairy farms by the tens to hundreds of thousands. Starlings usually eat insects during the winter, but when livestock feed is available, they’ll pick through it for steam-flaked corn, which is higher in protein and fiber than other parts of the feed. And when that many birds are taking the M&Ms out of the trail mix, so to speak, it can affect growth and milk production in cows and cost dairy farmers millions of dollars, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.

The birds are also suspected of transmitting diseases to livestock, though proving how this happens exactly has been as slippery as deciphering the impacts on native birds. While feedlots with more starlings had higher incidences of antibiotic resistant E. coli, killing more than 70 percent of the starling flock did not change how much E. coli the cows had. It’s also unclear if starlings are bringing microbes into the feedlots or simply spreading microbes that are already there.

A research economist for the U.S.D.A.’s National Wildlife Research Center, Stephanie Shwiff has seen how starlings congregate at dairy lots firsthand and, she said, it is “impressive.” But as she tallies up losses to the agricultural sector, she sees no redemptive arc for these birds — only financial harm.

“A lot of producers know exactly the damage that the birds are doing, but they have this overwhelming sense that it’s just the cost of doing business,” Dr. Shwiff said. She said blueberry farmers and wine grape vineyards also get slammed: “They have an almost defeated attitude.”

To help farmers and livestock owners, the U.S.D.A.’s Wildlife Services program helps disperse, relocate or eradicate starlings. In 2020 alone, the program shooed away nearly eight million European starlings, and killed another 790,128 of them. A vast majority of these animals were killed with a poison invented specifically for them called DRC-1339, or Starlicide.

Starlings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune

Joan Berry Hale of Stockbridge, Ga., a survivor of a 1960 Eastern Airlines plane crash that was the result of a bird strike.Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

While starlings’ impact on native birds is still debated, no one can question the effect they’ve had on American aviation. Just ask Joan Berry Hale.

On Oct. 4, 1960, Ms. Hale was working as a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines when the Lockheed L-188 Electra she was crewing scared a flock of starlings as it took off from Boston en route to Philadelphia.

“I could see out the window in the back, and I saw all these black birds fly by,” said Ms. Hale, now 85. The plane’s propellers ingested hundreds of starlings, which disturbed the engines and forced the craft to pitch left and crash nose first into the bay. “They didn’t find the front-end crew until they pulled the nose up out of the mud the next day,” she recalled.

Of the 72 people on board, only 10 survived. Most were severely injured, but Ms. Hale emerged unscathed and helped survivors exit the wreckage, put on life preservers and board rescue boats.

The Electra crash remains the deadliest accident resulting from a bird strike in world history. It was also a turning point in aviation safety.

“That was the crash that started it all,” said Carla Dove, program manager for the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab, which was created in response to the Electra accident.

Since its formation, the Feather Identification Lab has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to make air travel safer. Using the Smithsonian’s vast collection of feathers, Dr. Dove and other experts can take a piece of “snarge,” what they call bits of bird that have gone through a jet engine, and figure out which species it belonged to. Then, airport managers and wildlife biologists can work together to make the facilities less attractive to those species.

For starlings, says Richard Dolbeer, a science adviser for the U.S.D.A.’s Airport Wildlife Hazards Program, something as simple as letting the grass grow can discourage the birds from landing. Spacing out trees also cuts down on large, communal overnight roosts that might keep the animals near an airport.

This Great Breach in the Starling’s Abused Nature

Ryan Kronenbitter, the operations group supervisor for the team at LaGuardia Airport that helps manage wildlife. The gun is intended to startle and scare, not kill, birds.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

But while starlings have caused plenty of wreckage to agriculture and aviation, the birds may have some admirable qualities that are typically overlooked.

Dr. Simberloff, a pioneer in the field of invasion biology, said that it was a great tragedy that starlings had been introduced, but that some of the rhetoric around them is overblown.

“You see a lot of these popular papers that talk about it as one of the great scourges of North America,” Dr. Simberloff said of starlings. “And they don’t seem to be that.”

Dr. Dolbeer, who is also an ornithologist, said he had “great admiration for starlings because they are so adaptable.” He’s also fascinated by the way starlings can intermingle and even roost with native species, such as red-winged blackbirds. “It’s sort of like the analogy of America being a melting pot, with all the people coming in and gluing together,” he said.

Dr. Simberloff said his daughter rescued a starling and raised it up from a chick. “It knows its name very clearly,” and will sometimes say it — Blue — when prompted, he said.

There may even be reasons to further consider the birds’ ecological impact. The 2003 paper on starling dominance found three species of woodpeckers experienced population increases since the European birds arrived, although it does not make a case for causation. And Ms. Fugate and Dr. Miller point to a 1915 study by U.S.D.A. scientists who concluded that starlings gobbled up fewer crops and ate more crop pests than native species.

And while his research has made the Shakespearean starling legend seem well and truly dead, the question of how to view the European starling these days seems very much to depend on whom you ask.

After more than 60 years, Ms. Hale thinks about the crash anytime she sees a large flock of birds. So many innocent people lost their lives, and she’ll never forget the cold bite of the water. Ultimately, she thinks she became a better person because of the accident.

And while she “doesn’t care much for those pesky birds,” she also doesn’t blame the European starling. “It wasn’t their fault,” Ms. Hale said. “That’s just nature.”

A starling flaps its wings in Central Park, and a life changes course in the frigid waters of Boston Harbor.

A starling undeterred by an anti-perching device on a lamppost at LaGuardia.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

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