The Flight of the Starling

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Illustration by Sarah Esteje

Early in the spring of 1890, Eugene Schieffelin entered Central Park and released around 60 European starlings. The eccentric “acclimatizer,” as such animal importers are known, was a Shakespeare buff, and his group, the American Acclimatization Society, was on a mission: introduce every bird the Bard ever mentioned in his plays—all 64. Though they failed with the other birds they released, including nightingales (Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and others) and sparrows (Troilus and Cressida and others), the starling (one brief cameo in Henry IV, Part I) would go on to dominate the continent like no bird ever had.

Thanks to Schieffelin, today there may be as many as 200 million Sturnus vulgaris between here and Alaska, and the starling has established itself as maybe America’s most meddlesome winged thing. “Starlings do nothing in moderation,” the naturalist George Laycock once wrote. Cavorting in so-called murmurations—the name for flocks, presumably because of how the group chatters as it roosts—they destroy whole fields of grain. In their droppings is the fungus responsible for histoplasmosis, a leading cause of blindness.

Failed attempts at eradication by Parks and Recreation departments across North America have included laying down itching powder and live wires, firing pyrotechnics over roosting trees, and irradiating the birds with cobalt-60.

But the starlings have their defenders. Mozart was one; he kept a starling as a pet, delivering a graveside eulogy when it died that began, “A little fool lies here whom I held dear.” New York, their first home, in some ways is another: The Bronx—the borough where Schieffelin lived and worked—has its commemorative Starling Avenue. (It has Schieffelin Place and Schieffelin Avenue, too.)

Maybe the starling feels this connection. In Central Park today, visitors wanting to see one, says urban ranger Sunny Corrao, should head over to an area near Shakespeare Garden, now their favorite hangout.

The Flight of the Starling