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In which John discusses the history of bird liberation movements in the United States, and how one amateur ornithologist (and possible Shakespeare enthusiast?) reshaped the biodiversity of a continent.

The beautiful video of a murmuration of common starlings:

What ideas do we currently have that are as bad as Eugene Schiefferlin's European Starling idea? Probably quite a few . . .

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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 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 liked to import European birds 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 bullfinches, 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 American we call the common starling the "European Starling" in much the same way the French called syphilis the "Italian Disease" and the Italians called it the "French Disease". Their American population has grown from Schieffelin's 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 murmurations that are truly beautiful, but also hugely destructive. Like, if you've ever had a murmuration of starlings in your backyard, and I have, then 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 starling's call as "unmusical but varied" which incidentally is how I'm going to 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 lover's point of view, the starling is a decided acquisition to the bird life of our cities, where its long-drawn cheery whistle is in welcome contrast to the noisy chatter of house sparrows."

Except, one, only hard core fans of experimental music would call the starling's whistle cheery, and two, 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 liberations 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 Acclimatizists is that in many ways, they were 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 Colombian Exchange began in 1492, there would be no potatoes in Ireland, no cows or horses in the Americas, and most worryingly 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 Schieffelin, and in some ways fair because there were American ornithologists at the time who understood the dangers of Acclimatization, but Schieffelin didn't know the future and neither do we. I'm sure that we also have bad ideas that seem good now, but I don't which ideas.

But I do think its 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.

P.S. about Shakespeare. There is 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.