This bird illustrates how the road to hell is paved with noble intentions. In the early 1890s, a wealthy drug manufacturer, Eugene Schieffelin, had his servants release one hundred of these birds, imported from Europe at great expense, in New York’s Central Park. Schieffelin was a Shakespeare lover, and took it upon himself to introduce to America every bird ever mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.
According to journalists Scott Keyes and Daniel Karp, writing in the Pacific Standard, the starling made only one appearance in the whole Shakespearean dramatic opus, namely in
Act 1, Scene 3 of Henry IV. “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak; Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him,” Shakespeare wrote, a single line of script where a soldier is ordered, by the king, never to mention his brother-in-law’s name again, leading the soldier to dream of buying a starling that will repeat the name over and over. Starlings, after all, are incredible mimics, adept at copying everything from other bird songs to car alarms to human beings.
Schieffelin’s initial hundred soon shrank to just 32 survivors, but these proved more than a match for their new environment. They reproduced like rabbits. By the time of the First World War, they crossed the Mississippi. The North American population of European Starlings today is estimated at more than two hundred million birds. All of them have the DNA of the original batch, which ordinarily would spell genetic trouble, but no ill effects have yet appeared.
The bird is hugely controversial due to its omnivorous appetite. It feeds on insects of all kinds and sizes, and for this reason, it has received a welcome in some agricultural areas. But it also feeds on seeds, young leaves, fruits, nuts, berries and anything else. (Both bugs and berries abound on the blackberry patch where I photographed it.) When these starlings appear in flocks of tens or hundreds of thousands, called murmurations, the result can be disaster. According to Wikipedia, which refers to this bird as the “common starling”:
Since common starlings eat insect pests such as wireworms, they are considered beneficial in northern Eurasia, and this was one of the reasons given for introducing the birds elsewhere. Around 25 million nest boxes were erected for this species in the former Soviet Union, and common starlings were found to be effective in controlling the grass grub Costelytra zelandica in New Zealand. The original Australian introduction was facilitated by the provision of nest boxes to help this mainly insectivorous bird to breed successfully, and even in the US, where this is a pest species, the Department of Agriculture acknowledges that vast numbers of insects are consumed by common starlings.
Common starlings introduced to areas such as Australia or North America, where other members of the genus are absent, may affect native species through competition for nest holes. In North America, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, purple martins and other swallows may be affected. In Australia, competitors for nesting sites include the crimson and eastern rosellas. For its role in the decline of local native species and the damages to agriculture, the common starling has been included in the IUCN List of the world’s 100 worst invasive species.
Common starlings can eat and damage fruit in orchards such as grapes, peaches, olives, currants and tomatoes or dig up newly sown grain and sprouting crops. They may also eat animal feed and distribute seeds through their droppings. In eastern Australia, weeds like bridal creeper, blackberry and boneseed are thought to have been spread by common starlings. Agricultural damage in the US is estimated as costing about US$800 million annually. This bird is not considered to be as damaging to agriculture in South Africa as it is in the United States.
The large size of flocks can also cause problems. Common starlings may be sucked into aircraft jet engines, one of the worst instances of this being an incident in Boston in 1960, when sixty-two people died after a turboprop airliner flew into a flock and plummeted into the sea at Winthrop Harbor.
Starlings’ droppings can contain the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, the cause of histoplasmosis in humans. At roosting sites this fungus can thrive in accumulated droppings. There are a number of other infectious diseases that can potentially be transmitted by common starlings to humans, although the potential for the birds to spread infections may have been exaggerated.
So there you have it. Just one bird on a blackberry patch, but a large and long narrative, to which the above is only a short introduction. “A world in a grain of sand” — Wm. Blake.