ARE STILL UNPOPULAR IMMIGRANTS
by Whit Gibbons
February 29, 2004
have been made to curtail the introduction of exotic species into the
wild. One reason is because some become too successful, threatening the
well-being of native species. Many plants and animals introduced into
the country from other lands have become problems; kudzu, fire ants, and
Japanese beetles are some of the better known.
war against an alien species that has become or could potentially become
a problem is sometimes worthwhile. Other times the simplest approach is
to accept the invasion and learn to live with it. The starling, considered
a bird pest by many, serves as a prime example of an invasive species
that has become a naturalized citizen.
this illegal alien become established as such a dominant form of bird
life in America? In the 1890s a drug manufacturer named Eugene Scheifflin
lived in New York and admired two things--Shakespeare and birds. Apparently
New York offered little entertainment at the end of the 19th century,
because Scheifflin's hobby was to import all birds mentioned in Shakespeare's
writings. Through his efforts came the successful establishment of starlings
in North America. U.S. bird lovers, along with Scheifflin, felt these
birds would be an economic boon because they ate insects. But even as
early as 1895, people began to spend time, money, and effort eradicating
the descendants of Scheifflin's first few birds, and the efforts continue
decade of their initial release in Central Park, they had spread throughout
New York State and were moving west and south. One was found in Savannah
in 1917. By the 1920s they were in the midwestern states and they were
in California by 1942. Their North American range now includes most of
the continental United States, southern Canada, and northern Mexico.
have what many people view as bad habits. They can eat one to two times
their own weight in food each day. Much of their diet is fruit or grain
intended for human consumption. They have cost ranchers millions of dollars
a year in beef feeding lots by eating the grain or by contaminating it
with their wastes. Starlings often travel in large noisy groups that drive
many native songbirds from their nesting sites. The enormous flocks also
annoy people, and they are considered an air safety problem when they
congregate on or near airstrips because of their potential for causing
to control or eradicate the starling by biological means have been thwarted
by the amazing reproductive capacity of the species. In 1965, 25 million
starlings were estimated to be in the Dismal Swamp of Virginia and more
than a half billion were believed to be in the United States! Wiping out
such a populous, steadily reproducing animal is no easy task. The United
States was not the first country to regret the introduction of the starling,
either. Starlings were introduced into New Zealand in 1867 and were already
becoming a problem before 1880.
originally called European starlings, are indeed native to Europe, breeding
from the Scandinavian region and Siberia, as far south as India, Africa,
and Spain. They are rapid reproducers, eat a lot, and make a lot of noise.
Starlings, a problem for which we can only blame ourselves, seem to do
nothing in moderation.
feature of starlings is that they are superb mimics of the songs of other
birds as well as other animal sounds and mechanical noises. Some of the
more intriguing sounds reportedly repeated by starlings have been the
ringing of a telephone, barking of a dog, and quacking of a duck. In fact,
the reference to the starling in Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth
refers to the potential speaking ability of the bird. Hotspur says, "I'll
have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer.'"
The reasons for continuing to intentionally introduce non native species
into North America, or other parts of the world, are varied and often
controversial. Whatever the justification given, however, the seemingly
endless list of invasive species should serve as an indication that we
need more thoughtful consideration of the potential ecological consequences
any time we release an animal into the wild.
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