All Shakespeare's Birds

If you live in North America and you think starlings are pests, you should know who to blame. Blame Eugene Schieffelin (1827-1906) and his fanaticism about the works of William Shakespeare. He was also a member of the American Acclimatization Society. The Society supported efforts to find useful plants and animals, and to bring them to the United States. Schieffelin’s twin interests merged and caused the starling problem. His ambition was to introduce into the US every single bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. Starlings appear, for example, in the play Henry IV. Bullfinches and skylarks were introduced, but they vanished. Starlings were another story. In March of 1898, he released 60 imported starlings. The next year he released 40 more. It took a few years, but the starlings did get acclimatized on their own, and started an avian invasion of the continent. They have been spectacularly successful. The birds are now found from Alaska to Mexico, and in every American state. They have become pests of agriculture and outcompete native birds for nesting spots. Starlings eating the food you put out for songbirds and dirtying the birdbath? Blame Eugene Schieffelin’s enthusiasm for William Shakespeare.

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