By Keith Michael
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll holla ‘Mortimer!’
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
Hotspur (Henry Percy), History of Henry IV, Part I, Act I, Scene 3, by William Shakespeare
If one word might have changed the world, Shakespeare’s lone lowercase starling may have been it!
Outside my office door at The Juilliard School there is a wall approximately sixty feet long and eight feet high emblazoned with a luscious crimson print of a billowing theater curtain. As a designer’s dramatic flourish for the famed performing arts conservatory, embedded in that curtain, in 10-point type, is every word that William Shakespeare wrote. Buried somewhere amidst that bounty of words is Hotspur’s single utterance, “…starling.” I’ll have to look for it sometime over lunch.
Time travel 420 or so years later to a bench in Abingdon Square Park. I’m now sitting enjoying the freshly-planted chrysanthemum tuffets while a coterie of be-spangled 21st century Starlings jostle over an unidentifiable sidewalk tidbit in front of me. Perhaps these West Village Starlings are descendants of that Mortimer-repeating songbird of yesteryear. How could that be?
Well, thanks for asking! By historical accounts, on March 6, 1890 a nature-loving pharmacist from the Bronx, Eugene Schieffelin, walked into Central Park, opened the door on a cage, and loosed 60 European Starlings—that he just happened to have with him. In 1891 he released 40 more. No, they were not set free in the Shakespeare Garden. That garden wasn’t named until 1916, celebrating the tricentennial of Shakespeare’s death. Schieffelin’s aspiration was the romantic quest to bring the 45, or so, species of birds mentioned in The Bard’s plays to the New World. By that time, his previous forays to introduce Skylarks, Bullfinches, Chaffinches, Nightingales, and Song Thrushes had failed. I’m intrigued by the minutia of Schieffelin’s undocumented travels by ship to England, capturing his soon-to-be-immigrants, caring for them, sailing back to America, releasing, and tracking these birds—on a pharmacist’s salary. At least his pairs of European House Sparrows were adapting to their new home and begetting nicely. However, with Starlings, little did he know what a viral hit he had on his hands. By the 1920s, the offspring of his merry band of Starlings had made it to the Mississippi River. By the 1940s they were sunning themselves in California. By the 1950s they were homesteading north and south of the border into Canada and Mexico, and their numbers had surpassed 50 million. Today there are likely to be more than 200 million of these finely feathered philanderers and they may well be the most numerous bird on the continent.
In our time of eco-awareness, it’s hard to imagine that in the 19th century there was a popular organization called the American Acclimatization Society whose goal was to exchange plants and animals between cultures for the beautification of all. The havoc that a non-native species could perpetrate was unknown. If Starlings were beloved at home in England, what could go wrong with bringing them to the Americas? A lot. Masses of Starlings eat and defecate. A lot. Masses of Starlings raising more masses of Starling chicks make a lot of nests in places where native birds would also like to make their nests. The Starlings tend to win. The gymnastic vocalizations that Hotspur referred to when multiplied by hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands of birds can, indeed, keep one’s anger in motion. In fact, a large group of Starlings is called a murmuration and their synchronized flight displays are spectacular avian phenomena. Search YouTube for “murmuration of Starlings” to be wowed.
But with this, my tale starts tipping over from the problems with Starlings to their beauty. Though Shakespeare didn’t name this theatrical bird, its name is poetic. At this time of year, Starlings are molting into their fine new winter plumage. Though chubby and stumpy of tail, at the tips of their already handsome black, purple and green iridescent feathers are flickering white spots—little stars—star-lings. A name from the heavens.
Birders are not supposed to like this immigrant species, but I admire their spunk, their adaptability, their conversational chatter, and their fall speckled finery. Right now, I’m content to be entertained by the Starlings at my feet, strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage, and catching the afternoon glow through leaves just starting their turn to russet and yellow.
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