[audio:http://wamcradio.org/EarthWise/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/EW-05-24-12-Starlings.mp3|titles=EW 05-24-12 Starlings]
Invasive species get to the Unites States in a variety of ways: zebra mussels arrived in the holds of ships from Europe. Many invasive insects have hitched a ride on wood shipping pallets or plants destined for the horticultural trade. Multiflora roses were brought from Asia as an attractive erosion control measure.
But one of the oddest tales involves European starlings, the noisy iridescent black birds that are one of the least loved species in the U.S. They travel in flocks that can jeopardize air traffic, destroy crops, and disrupt the habitat and food sources of native birds.
A hundred and fifty years ago, there were no starlings in North America. Now, there are 200 million! All of these starlings are descended from a hundred birds that were brought over from England and released in New York’s Central Park in the 1890s. This was part of a misguided effort to introduce every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to the United States. The experiment was mostly a failure, so we have no skylarks in this country. But the starlings thrived, and soon spread beyond Manhattan to the entire continental United States.
Starlings are mimics, and that’s the context in which they appear in Shakespeare. In Henry the Fourth Part One, the character Hotspur considers using the starling’s voice to madden his opponent, the king, who refused to pay a ransom on Edmund Mortimer.
Had Shakespeare thought of a different way of infuriating King Henry, the avian profile in the U.S. would be quite different. Ironically, starling populations have declined by 80 percent in the United Kingdom, where they are native.
Photo, taken on March 28, 2007, courtesy of Sergey Yeliseev via Flickr.
Sound courtesy of Henry IV, Part 1 (1990, Michael Bogdanov) part 3 of 17 via YouTube.