All the Birds in Shakespeare



If you live in North America, you probably have starlings living near you.  You may or may not like the birds, which are a lot like people—noisy, smart, sticking their beaks into everything. You probably do not know that the birds are connected to the Bard, William Shakespeare. 

What brought starlings to America was a man’s fanaticism about Shakespeare. A man named Eugene Schieffelin (1827-1906) thought that Shakespeare’s works were the best. 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—this was long before environmentalist concern about invasive species.

Schieffelin’s twin interests in bringing home useful species and his adoration of Shakespeare merged. His ambition was to introduce into the U.S. every single bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. Starlings appear, for example, in the play Henry IV. 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 are enthusiastic about the birdbath you put out for cardinals. 

Several billion starlings now populate North America, from Alberta and Alaska to Texas and Mexico. All because of Eugene Schrieffer’s enthusiasm for William Shakespeare.

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