The worst lines in English poetry—from the point of view of bluebirds, flickers and bird watchers, at least—are in Shakespeare's King Henry IV, Part I, Act I, Scene 3. Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, is held for ransom by outlaws in Wales. Young Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, is married to Mortimer's sister Kitty. He wants King Henry to ransom Mortimer. The king refuses (Mortimer has a claim to his throne) and with fine Elizabethan eloquence tells Hotspur to shut up. "Let me not hear you speak of Mortimer," he says, and exits. Now gallant Hotspur, fresh from a victory in which 10,000 dead Scots are piled in heaps on the battlefield, explodes in turn. "Speak of Mortimer? Zounds! I will speak of him." Not quite ready to rebel, Hotspur plans to sneak up on the king while he is asleep and holler "Mortimer!" in his ear. Then he has a better idea. Starlings are mimics. They have no song of their own but imitate other birds and can be trained to repeat words. So Hotspur, pacing back and forth, says:
I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him.
Quite a plan; a starling croaking "Mortimer" would give the king—or anybody—a turn.
But Hotspur never has a chance to carry out his project, and Shakespeare never mentioned starlings again. There are 725 references to birds in his plays and many others in his poems. Nightingales, swans, eagles, doves and crows are mentioned often. The starling ranks with the loon and the osprey in being mentioned only once. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1890, almost 300 years after Shakespeare wrote King Henry IV, 60 starlings were released in Central Park in New York as a direct result of Hotspur's speech, and from these, and another shipment the following spring, all the starlings in North America are descended.
The man who released the birds was Eugene Schieffelin, an elegant and eccentric figure in New York high society. The date was March 16, a cold and disagreeable Sunday, with the early morning temperature at 25°. Schieffelin hoped to bring into the U.S. all the birds Shakespeare mentioned that were not native to North America. If he could have foreseen the results he might very well have made an exception in the case of the starling. For there are now more starlings in the U.S. than almost any other species, and all the evidence indicates they will soon be the most numerous birds in the land.
Schieffelin lived at the time in patrician comfort on Madison Avenue near 65th Street, a short block from the woods of Central Park. He was lean, handsome, aristocratic, with thin features, a prominent nose and a thick drooping mustache. He is given passing mention in guidebooks to American land birds when they take up, sometimes with ill-concealed bitterness, the task of identifying the starling.
Schieffelin had a profound influence on theories of bird behavior, on government legislation affecting birds and on the variety of game birds U.S. hunters are allowed to shoot. He has fallen into undeserved obscurity, as have other 19th century bird fanciers. They imported charming birds like skylarks and German songbirds, or ones that are challenging to hunt, like Chinese pheasants. It is the intention here to give these men a modest measure of historic justice, and their names and deeds will be recorded in due course. But first, to understand the risks of importing birds, a preliminary look should be taken at Schieffelin's starlings.
It's hard to find anyone with a kind word to say for starlings. Francis of Assisi, if he ever tangled with them, might have been tempted to whittle himself a slingshot. They have been called cocky, belligerent, disagreeable, aggressive, dirty, foul, filthy and just plain rotten. Ever since Schieffelin brought them in they have been leaving their mark on public buildings; on one occasion 11 tons of starling dung had to be scraped off the dome of the state capitol in Springfield, Ill. Starlings eat a great many weevils, stinkbugs, grasshoppers, caterpillars and beetles, but native birds had been doing so for thousands of years before the starlings arrived and needed no help from pushy strangers.
There are about 110 species of starlings in the world, but the only one in North America is the European starling, Sturnus vulgaris, which until Schieffelin went to work ranged from Great Britain to parts of Mongolia. The starling averages 8½" in length and has a lustrous metallic sheen to its greenish-black, lightly spotted plumage. It has a yellowish-white bill and short legs set wide apart, which give it a bowlegged appearance. Starlings walk rather than hop, placing one foot in front of the other in a way that makes them appear pigeon-toed. They have a peculiar swinging gait, as though they were shouldering someone off a sidewalk. They travel in flocks, and when they feed along the ground they walk fast, all heading in the same direction, staying close together, and moving with a purposeful, disciplined and deliberate air; no grazing or straying, just eating and hurrying along in search of mischief.
They seem to dislike rather than fear mankind. The veteran bird watcher and drama critic Brooks Atkinson, whose bluebirds were driven away by starlings, wrote that the victorious starlings perched on his chimney and snarled at him when he passed by. If these tone-deaf creatures could sing—an appalling thought—the tune would be "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better." Instead of being frightened when a human being comes along, a flock of starlings shows off. They swoop, dive and wheel, executing right-angle turns like figure skaters. These movements are intermixed with Icecapade glides and swift undulating dips and surges, all performed in such densely packed, wingtip-close masses and at such high speed that signals of changed direction from one bird to another are impossible. They seem rehearsed, programmed.
But it takes a great many starlings to put on a show, and they could not perform when there were only 100 in North America. Why did Schieffelin bring them in? He loved Shakespeare, and he considered it his duty to give his countrymen the cuckoos and nightingales nature had failed to provide. If you can find his biography, which is about as easy as locating the remains of the lapwings Schieffelin also imported, you will learn that his alarming success with starlings ranked even over his work in introducing the English sparrow into this country. But he shared the credit for the sparrows—if credit is the word—with other deluded bird enthusiasts. The starling was all his own.
Until he got mixed up with birds he had a blameless career. The Schieffelin family was one of the wealthiest in New York, having pioneered in the wholesale drug business. When oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, the Schieffelins bottled and sold petroleum as internal medicine, which was then more profitable than selling it for fuel. Eugene's grandfather Jacob, born in Philadelphia, was a British soldier in the colonial wars and a merchant and Indian trader before setting up shop in New York in 1794, having lived down the handicap of supporting King George III in the Revolution. Eugene's father, Henry Hamilton Schieffelin, was a lawyer, a friend of botanists and men of letters, and something of an adventurer who wandered around Europe until the enormous wealth of the family business compelled him to spend all his time managing it.
Eugene was born in 1827, the youngest of seven children. He was not expected to do anything at all except—as one social historian puts it—develop his "rare intellectual qualities, the results of inherited tastes and talents"; his mother wrote poetry. Instead he went into business when he was only 22 years old. He was a conscientious clubman, going regularly to the St. Nicholas, just around the corner from his home, or to the Union, the Corinthian Yacht Club or the Tuxedo, then the favorite organization of upper-class sportsmen. He was in the Society List from its inception, as well as in the Club Register which preceded it. After he married an heiress whose father owned much of the land on which Brooklyn was built, his social and financial position was unrivaled. He was a gifted artist, and after he retired from business in his early 30s he passed his time painting portraits. He had a serious, not to say solemn, view of his position as a leader of society. There was no Gilded Age extravagance about him: he simply thought he owed it to the public to maintain an active social life and attached a special value—as the family chronicler prissily notes—"to culture and refinement in the best sense." In his spare time he took up ornithology and impressed his friends with the depth of his knowledge about birds.
Between 1852 and 1860 he lived in a mansion on Fifth Avenue at Madison Square. Caterpillars infested the trees in the square, and he imported 12 English sparrows to start a colony to exterminate the caterpillars. He was not the first in this respect. A shipment had been turned loose by someone else in a Brooklyn cemetery at least 10 years before. The sparrows preceded the starlings as nuisances. In 1870 the city of Philadelphia released a thousand sparrows in its parks. The result was a chain reaction of sparrow colonies. The birds traveled in empty boxcars that had contained grain, and spread almost at once around railroad yards all over the country. The hatred focused on English sparrows was almost hysterical. They were described in Congress as "rats of the air, vermin of the atmosphere." Elliot Coues, director of the Biological Survey, who was one of the most vigorous and interesting nature writers of the time (until he gave up science for spiritualism), denounced sparrows as "wretched interlopers we have thoughtlessly introduced, and played with, and coddled." Detestation of sparrows led to bounties being paid for dead birds ($117,500 in all), to attempts to sell them in markets (25¢ a dozen), to massive sparrow-trapping operations (400,000 trapped in Indianapolis in two years) and to shooting, poisoning, netting and nest-destroying, in which a lot of birds other than sparrows were killed.
It was only natural for Schieffelin to want to import such beloved English birds as skylarks and nightingales to counteract the bad reputation of sparrows. Moreover, he had rivals. The most effective was the Cincinnati Acclimatization Society, which was dedicated to the introduction into the U.S. of "all useful insect-eating European birds, as well as the best singers." In 1873 the society sent its secretary armin tenner, to Europe. He arranged for the trapping of some 3,000 birds, of various species in Germany and along the Danube. By the standards of the time it cost a small fortune to import live birds, but the Cincinnati society was backed by wealthy businessmen. The birds reached Cincinnati in mid-December and were kept throughout the winter in an empty mansion in Burnett Woods Park. When the weather cleared in the spring, the birds were taken into the park and, amid considerable civic excitement, turned loose.
They disappeared. Only the skylarks returned the next spring, and then they too vanished. Tenner gave several theories as to what happened. One was that the birds were shot. Another was that they were taken by birds of prey which they had not known in the Old Country and so did not know how to escape. The society spent another $5,000 bringing in 15 new species, but they disappeared also. Tenner theorized that the birds were confused by the geography of North America. They flew west thinking they were migrating south. Arriving at the Pacific Ocean, they thought it was some European body of water they could fly across. "They start across the ocean," Tenner said. "They fly hundreds of miles and find no sign of land. They become bewildered. Completely exhausted and no longer able to fly, they drop down one by one into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. They are drowned, lost." The society lost its financial backing and quit importing birds.
Schieffelin was not so easily discouraged. He organized the American Acclimatization Society. His brother Maunsell headed the New York Colonization Society. By 1877 Schieffelin was regularly releasing English songbirds in Central Park. He had rivals even there. Joshua Jones, an elderly social figure out of the Society List, and John Lansing Sutherland, from the Club Register, were liberating chaffinches and other birds. But they had no profound central purpose akin to Schieffelin's plan to import all of Shakespeare's birds, and soon gave up.
On the West Coast more rivals appeared, as tenacious as Schieffelin himself. The German Song Bird Society of Portland, Ore. was formed to import into the Northwestern woods all the birds whose songs the German immigrants had enjoyed in Germany. Directly before their eyes was one of the most spectacularly successful introductions of a foreign game bird in history, Owen Denny's work with the ringnecked pheasant of China. Denny had arrived in Oregon in 1852 from a farm in Ohio, crossing the plains by covered wagon. When he was 14 his father was killed by the kick of an Indian pony, and Owen had to work to help support the family. He worked his way through college, studied law and was elected a police-court judge. Appointed consul in Tientsin in 1877, he became interested in Chinese birds while studying the attitude of Chinese farmers toward them. Unlike American farmers, they did not shoot or frighten birds from their fields. They netted them, however, and placed them on sale, live, at the markets. Chinese would not buy dead birds, fearing they had been poisoned. Denny bought a dozen bedraggled and half-starved ringnecked pheasants and look them home to fatten them. They grew so rapidly and became so beautiful that he kept them to admire them, and one day the thought crossed his mind that they might do well in Oregon. The ship Otego was at the point of sailing for Port Townsend, Washington Territory, and in January 1881 Denny loaded about 60 pheasants on it.
Few birds were lost in the ocean crossing. But at Port Townsend, at the entrance of Puget Sound some 200 miles from Portland, they were roughly handled, shipped by train for several days, and only three hens and 17 cocks were alive when they reached Oregon in March. Denny's instructions on how the birds were to be released were disregarded; they were turned loose in the damp woodlands near the mouth of the Columbia River and apparently none survived. Denny was furious. The birds had cost him about $300. It happened to be a time of intense anti-Chinese feeling on the Pacific Coast, and Denny, who admired the Chinese people as well as Chinese birds, became determined to plant his pheasants in Oregon. The following spring he sent over a better-prepared shipment on a vessel sailing directly to Portland. His brother John released 28 pheasants on a grassy butte behind the Denny farm.
In the meantime Denny had been appointed consul-general at Shanghai and became a leader of the foreign colony in the city. He had earlier persuaded the Oregon legislature to protect his birds for 11 years. But they multiplied so fast that farmers accused them of eating their grain and hunters were killing them. Denny left the consular service in 1884 and sent home a shipment of golden, silver, copper and green pheasants from China and Japan that cost him from $5 to $9 apiece. These he entrusted to the Multnomah Rod and Gun Club, while he took up new duties as foreign affairs adviser to the king of Korea. The gun club placed the birds on a 700-acre island in Puget Sound, promising the owner $50 plus $25 a month to care for them. Within a year, however, the club was declared bankrupt and disbanded. The island's owner thereupon sold hunting rights to sportsmen for $25 each, which effectively stopped the propagation of silver, golden, green and copper pheasants.
Enormous numbers of ringnecked pheasants were being shot illegally, but they still increased beyond anyone's expectations. When the prohibition against killing them expired and the first season began, some 50,000 pheasants were killed on opening day. The figure was questioned as unbelievable, but a correspondent for the Portland Oregonian telegraphed his paper, "A veritable cannonade is being kept up in this vicinity today." The season was long—Aug. 1 to Nov. 15—and market hunters put so many birds on sale that the markets were flooded. Tales of ringnecked-pheasant hunting around Lebanon, Ore. reached Eastern sportsmen and some 15 hunters regularly made the 3,000-mile train trip to be present on opening day. For the past half-century or so U.S. hunters have been taking from 10 to 12 million pheasants a year.
Schieffelin undoubtedly knew of Denny's overwhelmingly successful importation. So did Frank Dekum, a German-American businessman who knew Denny and reasoned that if Chinese pheasants could flourish in Oregon, so could German songbirds. Dekum was a stalwart son of German immigrants in St. Louis. At 16 he left home for the California gold fields. Later he moved to Portland, where he was the proprietor of a combined fruit store, confectionery and bakery and became president of the Portland Savings Bank and one of the wealthiest men in the city. One-third of Portland's 50,000 inhabitants were German immigrants, and as a leader of the German colony Dekum put up most of the money for the German Song Bird Society.
The first shipment cost a formidable $1,400. But unlike. Schieffelin's solitary effort, the Oregon importation was a community enterprise. Collections were made, and admission charged when the caged birds were exhibited. The first birds arrived in poor condition. A second shipment was ordered. Charles Pfluger, a real-estate dealer and agent for German steamship lines, reported sizable numbers brought to Portland at different times: 20 pairs of goldfinches, 20 pairs of parrot crossbills, 40 pairs each of goldfinches, chaffinches and siskins, 35 pairs of green linnets, five pairs of robin redbreasts, 10 pairs of woodlarks, 35 pairs of nightingales—nearly 500 birds in all. Another report added 35 pairs of starlings and 20 pairs of European black-capped warblers.
The skylarks and woodlarks were turned loose in the country where Denny's pheasants had done so well. All the others were released in the city park in Portland. The idea was that German birds should be singing where the homesick immigrants could hear them. For many years the birds were reported to be flourishing. Pfluger, who corresponded with Schieffelin, insisted that almost all the birds were doing splendidly. He wrote that the "useful and lovely bird, the skylark" had increased wonderfully and could be heard singing in meadows all over Oregon. While it seems to be true that skylarks and starlings survived for a few years before they vanished, all the others disappeared, as had the imports in Cincinnati and New York.
But Schieffelin did not know that and increased his shipments. In sum, 20 or 30 species released over 20 years in Oregon, Ohio and New York had completely failed before Schieffelin's starlings at last took hold. The first report that their numbers were increasing came in the spring of 1891. Directly across Central Park from Schieffelin's neighborhood was the huge new brick building of the Museum of Natural History. One day a man named Walter Granger was clambering around the roof and spotted a starling nest in a corner. That was enough for Schieffelin, who hurriedly brought over another shipment of foreign birds, including 40 more starlings. He released these on April 25, 1891, a fine spring morning; the birds promptly disappearing from sight. They were unreported until the following spring, when Granger again found a nesting pair on the museum roof. (Later that spring a pair of newly imported skylarks built a nest in a corner of the museum.) In those days the 840 acres of Central Park were densely wooded and any number of birds could live there undetected, so it is possible other starlings were nesting somewhere else. But a sharp-eyed contributor to the Oologist Monthly Magazine (oology is the study of birds' eggs) spent the month of May 1893 counting birds in Central Park and did not see a single starling. He sighted 68 other species but none of the tough Sturnus vulgaris. In that same month 15 thrushes brought over from England were turned loose in the park, adding to the 35 pairs previously released there. Published accounts did not say who imported them, but it could only have been Schieffelin. Whatever mistakes he made about birds, he certainly knew his Shakespeare: the thrush appears in A Winter's Tale:
With heigh! with heigh! the thrash and the jay
Are summer songs for me and my aunts
While we lie tumbling in the hay.
Nothing more was ever heard of the thrushes. Schieffelin's skylarks and nightingales also disappeared forever. Then in the spring of 1898 a boy in Brooklyn threw a stone at a bird not previously known in that borough and killed it. Two more of the mysterious visitors were shot by Brooklynites who wanted to see what breed they were. They sent the bodies to Dr. C. Hart Merrian, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. They were Sturnus vulgaris, the first to have ventured outside Central Park. The following spring Dr. George Bird Grinnell, a celebrated naturalist of the time, was riding his horse near Riverside Drive in New York when he spotted a bird he had never seen walking around a patch of lawn. "The bird was black, with a white bill and a short tail," he reported. "It was a European starling, unless I am very much mistaken...I shall endeavor to investigate the matter further."
Later that summer a physician who was also an amateur ornithologist discovered that a flock of starlings had taken over a tower of Boys High School in Brooklyn. About the same time a man named Wilmot Townsend, who lived a few miles from the school, heard a strange and disagreeable wheezy, wheezy, wheezy sound. Investigating, he found a flock of 20 starlings, and must have been surprised, for propagandists for bird importations had given the impression that starlings had a pleasing and melodious call. The bird was still so little known that Townsend's report was news. He said that "starlings seem to hold aloof and do not fraternize with other birds."
It apparently did not occur to laymen or scientists that it was the other way around—other birds did not fraternize with starlings. This was not inhospitality but plain common sense. After overpopulating the museum and Boys High, the starlings were hard pressed for nesting sites. They were soon laying eggs on barn doors and window shutters and in crevices of public buildings, and appropriating the nests of other species. They were especially pleased with the handsome birdhouses people put up for purple martins and bluebirds.
Their attachment to bluebird houses led to the most disconcerting discovery of the whole starling invasion. It was generally believed (it still is) that birds and other wild creatures are motivated by practical concerns and do not have such human failings as envy, spite, political enmity, racial bias or conscious trouble-making. Birds fight other birds that threaten their nests or food supply, and they may sing to assert their right to their territory, but they do not go out of their way to browbeat other birds just for the pleasure of it. But that is what starlings did to bluebirds: they just perched nearby, staring, wheezing and whistling. The first extensive study of the starling made by the U.S. Government (Department of Agriculture Bulletin No. 868) said, "It seems almost as if the bird was actuated more by a morbid pleasure of annoying its neighbor than by any necessity arising from a scarcity of nesting sites."
In one detailed account two bluebirds built their nest high on an elm tree in Norwalk, Conn., in spite of the raucous jeering of starlings gathered around watching them. The bluebirds finally left without nesting. A bird watcher hurriedly built a birdhouse and the bluebirds returned and began putting nesting material in it. In their absence the starlings entered the birdhouse and threw out the nesting material. The bluebirds put it back. The starlings threw it out again. This went on for three days. The bird watcher (unnamed in the Government's report) built another birdhouse with an opening large enough for bluebirds but too small for starlings. This time the bluebirds nested, but the male bluebird was found dead beneath the birdhouse; the reasonable suspicion was that the starlings had something to do with its demise.
At about the same time, in Ambler, Pa., a bird watcher saw starlings kill two nesting robins, "the victims being dispatched by powerful pecks on the head." Starlings were also seen breaking the eggs in robins' nests. In Closter, N.J. a man who owned a pigeon loft was appalled to see a gang of tough-looking bowlegged birds drive away his adult pigeons, enter the loft and drag out the squabs, dropping them to the ground. But the worst sufferers (except bluebirds) were yellow-shafted flickers, a beautiful woodpecker whose tree-hole nests were exactly what starlings wanted. In one authenticated account a pair of flickers in Port Chester, N.Y. found a pair of starlings watching their nest opening but making no overt attack so long as the flickers stared back. (Flickers are bigger than starlings.) Whenever a flicker looked away, one of the starlings darted for the nest opening. The flicker attacked it and both birds fell to the ground, the starling taking flight. After several days of this intermittent fighting both birds were pretty well de-feathered. When the flicker eggs were hatched the fighting intensified. The flickers somehow raised their young, but then cleared Out. In Hartford, Conn. six starlings set up a continuous watch on a nest of flickers. According to the Government's Economic Value of the Starling to the United States, "Presently a flicker came out, dragging a starling with him." While the flicker and the starling battled outside the nest, another starling darted into it. The flicker consequently had to stop fighting the first starling and drag out the second. While he was battling with it, a third starling darted into the nest opening. The flicker repeated the entire performance "for about half an hour, when he gave up, leaving the starlings in possession."
"The starling is an interesting, entertaining bird," said another Government study. Department of Agriculture Technical Bulletin No. 61. "They are cheery fellows, too," said an editorial note in Forest and Stream Magazine. This was a minority opinion, certainly not shared by fruit farmers. In Bristol, Conn, a flock estimated at 300 starlings swept down on a cherry tree and consumed all the fruit in less than 15 minutes. Everyone knew that robins ate cherries, but they did so quietly and inconspicuously. An individual robin, moved by hunger, followed his own impulses in flying to a tree while another robin flew to a different tree in response to his own ideas. But a flock of starlings flew in fast, like the Luftwaffe, landed on a predetermined tree, ate the cherries and put on one of their aerial performances as they flew away while the farmer was still looking for his shotgun. How did they know which tree to select? Did they study the orchard ahead of time? How was the feeding attack coordinated? Did they hold a meeting, take a vote? Or did they somehow respond uniformly through the entire flock in the way an individual robin responded to a solitary impulse? However starlings accomplished it, farmers complained that a tree whose yield was worth $60 a season produced only $10 worth of fruit after one of their visits.
Starlings extended their range so slowly no one anticipated they would become a nationwide nuisance. By 1902 they had merely crossed the Hudson River into New Jersey, and a few had been seen around Sing Sing Prison some 40 miles north of Central Park. The annual Christmas bird count in 1905 reported only one starling in the New York area. In 1909 young Maunsell Schieffelin Crosby, an ornithologist who was Eugene's nephew, reported the first starling ever seen near Hyde Park, not far from the home of Franklin Roosevelt, a bird watcher himself. In 1910, or 20 years after Schieffelin released the first 60 birds, starlings ranged between Philadelphia to the south and Providence, R.I. to the north, a distance of about 200 miles.
Thereafter their growth was explosive. They discovered Washington, D.C., their favorite city, in 1916. In 1917 a starling was seen in Savannah. In 1930 a single starling was observed in a farm lot seven miles west of Sedalia, Mo.—major news for bird watchers, since it was believed that the lack of trees and nesting sites would prevent starlings from crossing the plains. The first starlings reached Jackson, Wyo. a few years later.
In the early 1940s starlings appeared in northern California, having crossed the Rockies, which also had been expected to stop them. They spread so rapidly that by 1948 a flock of 25 was discovered in the desert country west of the Salton Sea. Two starlings were spotted in downtown San Diego in 1959. They must have carried back a favorable report, for five years later starlings were not only located in the city, they were found in Baja California 180 miles south. There are no yellow-shafted flickers in California, so the starlings appropriated the nests of the red-shafted flicker. By 1964 starlings were so well established in Arizona, where they nested in holes in segura cactus, that it seemed likely they would soon be found in the Mexican and Arizona deserts.
They have now reached Alaska. In the course of his ceaseless wanderings on behalf of bird studies, Roger Tory Peterson found starlings in central Mexico, and they have since been reported in Yucatan. Not one of half a dozen ornithological authorities would make a guess as to how many millions of starlings have descended from Schieffelin's original importation. When the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife undertook the first breeding-bird survey in 1966, more starlings were counted than any other bird except grackles. The study was limited to the region east of the Mississippi. Observers set out half an hour before dawn on summer mornings over 585 routes in 26 states and part of southern Canada. Each observer stopped at 50 stations, half a mile apart, for three minutes, noting all the birds that could be seen and identified at each station. More than half a million birds of 376 species were counted, of which 48,676 were starlings and 49,750 grackles.
By 1969, when the survey had been extended to the Pacific Coast, 1,361 observers spot-checked birds at 88,050 stations. In their 4½-hour count they ticked off 74,410 starlings among the 470 species observed. The observers spotted 23,920 bobwhite, 688 great blue herons, 721 blue-winged teal, 6,575 ringnecked pheasants, 11,684 indigo buntings, 282 wood ducks, seven roseate spoonbills, 2,487 bluebirds, 270 prothonotary warblers, 4,922 yellow-shafted flickers and many common and uncommon hawks, owls and nutcrackers. Only red-winged blackbirds (101,865) and English sparrows (77,965) outnumbered starlings.
But the most astounding increase was in California and the other Western states, where the starling population has been growing at the rate of 39% each year since 1968. From a zero population some 30 years ago starlings now outnumber all the 110 species in California counted during the survey except the English sparrow, abundant there ever since 1855, and five native birds: house finch, meadow-lark, mourning dove, Brewer's blackbird and red-winged blackbird. Projecting the current increase, the starling population of California will soon equal that of New York, where the bird has been breeding since 1890. But there is no comparison with the rate of increase, for starlings in California have multiplied as rapidly in years as those in New York multiplied in decades. The bird has at last found the ideal home it has searched for ever since leaving Central Park, and its increase in the past is likely to seem minor compared to what is expected of it in the future.
None of the men who imported birds gained anything from their labors. Even Owen Denny (though he was given some stuffed pheasants by the Rod and Gun Club shortly before it went broke) was a target of abuse from farmers. Frank Dekum, the German-American known as "a warm friend of the little warbling stranger," had a moment of glory after a big shipment of birds in 1892, but in 1893 his Portland Savings Bank failed, and he was subject "to much unjust censure by the depositors." The receiver for the closed bank was none other than Denny, home from directing the foreign affairs of Korea. Dekum worked to get the bank reopened and succeeded, only to have it close again almost at once. Worn out, he planned to go to Hawaii to rest, but died the day before he was to leave Portland. Not long afterward Denny was gored by a bull on his farm, suffered a stroke, and died in 1900.
Schieffelin died in 1906 without knowing that his only successful introduction was the starling—and without knowing why only the starling, the English sparrow and Chinese pheasant survived of all the birds that he and his rivals set free. Nor does anyone know now. The prevailing belief is that a niche existed in North American nature, an empty place not needed by competing species, a sort of vacuum that starlings could fill without encountering the struggles for food and shelter that killed off other introduced species. When the Lacey Act was passed in 1900 it specifically prohibited the importation of starlings. By that time it was too late. Under the Lacey Act the Office of Foreign Game Introduction was eventually established. Birds could no longer be brought in for whimsical reasons, such as a mention in Shakespeare. A thorough scientific study of the effect on native birds, on agriculture and on human beings was carved out. As a result, 114 species were studied in some 20 years in Europe and Asia, and 14, including capercaillies, Iranian pheasants, francolins and golden, silver, copper and green pheasants, were tested, studied and eventually released.
Last year the entire bird introduction program was abolished. An amendment to the Lacey Act now being considered sets up such strict controls that introduction of foreign species is in effect prohibited. There will never again be anything like the starling invasion, a very wise decision, though considerably belated. But,' too, there will never again be anything like the introduction of the ring-necked pheasant or the chukar partridge or any other agreeable import. Starlings have a lot to answer for.
The aristocratic Eugene Schieffelin did not foresee the alarming fertility of the starlings.