Share this article

print logo

BARD'S BIRDS, IMPORTED FROM EUROPE, HAVE RAVAGED US FOR A CENTURY

Shortly after the ship arrived at the Port of New York that spring day in 1890, stevedores unloaded a strange cargo: Cages containing 60 bobtailed birds, all of them raucously complaining about the uncustomary mode of transportation to which they had been subjected.

The plump, black birds were consigned to one Eugene Schieffelin, a prosperous New York drug wholesaler. He promptly took them to Central Park, opened the cages and watched the birds vanish into the trees, the newest European settlers in the New World.

Two of the birds wasted no time in building a nest under the eaves of the nearby American Museum of Natural History. In all probability, that nest incubated the first Sturnus vulgaris born in America. And that blessed event enables us to celebrate -- make that observe -- the 100th anniversary of the transplantation of the starling to our continent.

Within six years, starlings had taken up residency throughout the New York metropolitan area. Human European immigrants, longing for familiar sights and sounds of the Old Country, at first were delighted.

Like a plague, though, the starlings slowly spread across the continent, crossing the Mississippi River, engulfing the Great Plains, cascading over the Rocky Mountains, stopping only for the treeless Pacific Ocean.

Today, the starlings range from Alaska and Quebec to the Gulf Coast and northern Mexico. They seem determined to become as numerous as the stars, as if to suggest their name means "little star," just as duckling means "little duck."

During the breeding season, starlings nest in and around urban parks, suburban grasslands, and rural fields and woodlands. They often commandeer the excavations of woodpeckers and occupy all available natural cavities, much to the distress of other cavity-nesting species. In fact, the ranks of New York State's official bird, the Eastern Bluebird, have been severely depleted by the virtual starling monopoly on such nesting sites.

Outside of the breeding season, the starlings congregate by the thousands, often by the tens of thousands. The huge flocks are known as murmurations, a tribute to their collective sound.

At roost, the starlings mass in equally large numbers in every nook and cranny of urban architecture, queuing up on building eaves and ledges, on church steeples and parapets, and on the steel lattice of bridges and towers.

It did not take long for the rapidly-multiplying starlings to begin earning the wrath of man by whitewashing buildings with excrement; by stripping orchards and vineyards of cherries and grapes; by tak ing their fill of grain put out for livestock, while polluting the rest with their feces; and by aggressively contributing to the decline of more desirable species.

But on Oct, 4, 1960, the starlings proved they could be more than expensive nuisances: They also could be a menace to mankind.

It was on that date that a Lockheed Electra plunged into Boston Harbor seconds after takeoff from Logan International Airport, killing 62 persons. Federal Aviation Administration investigators blamed the crash on a murmuration of 10,000 to 20,000 starlings that enveloped the airplane, clogged the air intakes of the four turboprop engines and caused a flame-out.

Efforts to control or fend off the starlings have been many and varied.

In Fairfield, Calif., when an estimated 200,000 starlings prompted residents to walk with open umbrellas -- rain or shine -- the citizenry fought back. Loud whistles, clanging pots, ringing cowbells, aerial explosives and amplified starling distress calls were to no avail.

A Fairfield model airplane club even sent up a squadron of 12 remote-controlled planes to engage the starlings in dogfights. Five planes went down. There were no bird casualties.

Elsewhere, people have tried poisoning; spraying with detergents to dissolve the natural protective oils in the feathers, causing the birds to die of exposure; feeding birth control pills to breeding birds; firing skyrockets, Roman candles, shotguns, rifles and BB guns into starling-laden trees; blasting with deafening ultrasound and blinding searchlights; trapping; shocking with electrical and electronic devices; bombarding with Klaxon horns; drenching with fire hoses; and dangling toy owls, rubber snakes and alligators, paper bags, and myriad other mysterious amulets in the trees.

Balanced against all of this is the starling's wholesale consumption of terrestrial insects and parasites. So the bird isn't all bad.

Nevertheless, the starling has carved out a strong ecological niche since that fateful ceremony conducted in Central Park a century ago by Schieffelin. In 1891, he released more starlings, bringing the total to 100.

Why did he do it? Well, Schieffelin was not only a bird enthusiast but also a bard enthusiast. He already had introduced the English (house) sparrow here. It was his goal to bring to America every bird species mentioned in the writings of William Shakespeare.

The starling, worse luck, was mentioned in Henry IV, Part I.

DON BARRY, a Tonawanda writer, believes this is another case of recklessness coming home to roost.

There are no comments - be the first to comment