Seemed Like a Good Idea: Eugene Schieffelin and the European Starlings



good morning Hank it's Tuesday today I'd like to share with you the story of Eugene Schieffelin and his idea that seemed good at the time so Schieffelin was born in New York City in 1827 and in many ways he lived the American dream which is to say that he was born rich and remained so he was the seventh son of a famous family and he worked for his father's pharmaceutical company he also loved birds and possibly Shakespeare but more on that later at any rate we know that Schieffelin like to import European bird species and introduce them into New York City for instance he might have been the first person to introduce the House Sparrow to North America he wanted to quote exterminate the caterpillars which infested the trees of Madison Park and who knows he might have been successful I haven't seen a lot of caterpillars in Madison Square Park lately although I have seen a fair number of house sparrows Schieffelin also to use his word liberated many other european bird species into new york including bull finches and skylarks and nightingales all of which died but on March 6th 1890 he released a flock of some 60 common starlings into Central Park in New York City and in doing so sparked a magnificent disaster now here in North America we call the common Starling the European Starling in much the same way that the French called syphilis the Italian disease and the Italians called it the French disease their American population has grown from Schieffelin 60 Birds to somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million in fact there are now more European starlings in the Americas than there are in Europe they form these epic flocks called murmuration x' that are truly beautiful but also hugely destructive like if you've ever had a murmuration of starlings in your backyard and i have you'll know that they produce an astonishing amount of poop also they crowd out native species and cause about a billion dollars a year in damages to the United States mostly in the form of crop destruction plus they make a lot of noise Wikipedia describes the starlings call as unmusical but varied which incidentally is how I'm gonna describe my singing voice from now on there's a hilarious bit from a 1906 birding book that says of the Starling from the bird lovers point of view the Starling is a decided acquisition to the bird life of our cities where it's long drawn cheery whistle is in welcome contrast to the noisy chatter of house sparrows except one only hardcore fans of experimental music would call the starlings whistle cheery and the reason we have to listen to the chattering of house sparrows is because we introduced them to America right but back to Schieffelin his Liberation's were part of this whole 19th century movement called acclimatization wherein people would bring foreign flora and fauna to different places to see if they could make human life better alright so this is the part of the video where I tell you the lesson which is that humans should not play God or mess with nature or whatever but no I mean the weird thing about the acclimatize they're responding appropriately to developments in human history I mean if plants and animals hadn't been moved between the Americas and afro-eurasia in the centuries after the Columbian Exchange began in 1492 there would be no potatoes in Ireland no cows or horses in the Americas and most worrisome ly no pizza because tomatoes are a food from the Americas and wheat is a food from afro-eurasia one of the reasons that fewer people will starve this decade than in any decade in the last several thousand years is that we've gotten really good at moving plant and animal species around to places where they will thrive it's easy to judge Schieffelin and in some ways fair because there were American ornithologist at the time who understood the dangers of acclimatization but Schieffelin didn't know the future and neither do we I'm sure we also have bad ideas that seem good now but I don't know which ideas but I do think it's helpful to remember when thinking about what we believe or what we believe we know that history is littered with stories of starlings Hank I'll see you on Friday PS about Shakespeare there's this old story that Schieffelin introduced the starlings as part of a project to bring every bird mentioned in Shakespeare's plays to the United States there doesn't seem to be any contemporary evidence for that story unfortunately but if you can find some you could solve a minor but pervasive historical mystery

25 thoughts on “Seemed Like a Good Idea: Eugene Schieffelin and the European Starlings

  1. I read a book called the Sting in the tail about the loss of bumblebees in the UK (due to many factors like removing the traditional hedge fences) and in one part how they took them to New Zealand where now they are very common! It took quite a few goes because of the long sea voyage and the opposing seasons! In NZ we also have a lot of introduced flora and fauna, some good and some devastating, some even just getting quite bad now!

  2. About 3 years ago, a large murmur? of these birds covered my house and yard in Queens New York. It fascinated me and my mom. We thought they were crows. They stayed on our property for about 30-45 minutes then moved on. There was little to none yard damage.

  3. i'm picturing that doctored video of oprah with the bees which is how i assume eugene acted with the starlings

  4. This reminds me a bit of a recentish (few years back) story that made me laugh and made me think. A zoo in Italy was busted for passing off chow chow puppies as pandas. It's funny when you see the pictures and if you have a ridiculous sense of humor (though also, admittedly, sad bc they painted them to make them look panda-like, and I'm guessing it's unlikely they used puppy- health- friendly dye), but made me really think about how far we've come globalization-wise. So many countries do have zoos with animals from all over the world, whereas maybe 100 years ago (or two or three? i'm not 100% sure on the history here), you'd probably rely on the account from a book or a rich aristocratic friend who travelled or a World's Fair exhibition to be able to see or imagine what an exotic, non-native animal looked like. You could easily pass off a dog as a panda, bc who would know what a panda truly looked like.

  5. European Starlings were introduced to South Africa too, but they are nowhere near as abundant as they are in America

  6. Ugh. We had a starlings nest outside my daughter’s bedroom last year. They woke her up early every morning. It was awful, but by law we weren’t allowed to move the nest until the babies left.

  7. This felt like a shorter version of The Anthropocene Reviewed and I liked it! And my cat liked (or possibly hated) the bird noises!

  8. So I study chemistry and I was investigating Dye Sensitised Solar Cells. An interesting enough topic. We decided on DCM as the dye we would use. Based on our knowledge beforehand this seemed like the best option. However, all our research went horribly wrong and we got a really low efficiency. Guessing DCM is our metaphorical starling. But, like the starling, it's beautiful to look at in high concentration.

  9. To be fair, Ireland would probably have been better off without the potato. Bet you've never heard of any "Irish wheat famine" or "Irish dairy famine" etc. Moral of the story is: Monoculture is a bad idea.

  10. I had to rewatch this because I couldn’t remember if we got to see John’s arms or not. (turns out we do)

  11. Oh geez, while absolutely mesmerizing, if I was caught beneath a murmuration of sparrows, I would run away screaming. Birds don’t scare me but birds totally scare me. Don’t tell the birds, though

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