by Whit Gibbons

February 29, 2004

Great efforts 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.

Waging ecological 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.

How did 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 today.

Within a 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.

Starlings 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 airplane crashes.

All efforts 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.

Starlings, 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.

One appealing 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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