For the Birds Radio Program: Exotic Birds

Original Air Date: Dec. 28, 1988

Today Laura Erickson talks about some of the birds that were introduced in the United States. (3:56) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


(Recording of a House Sparrow)

Back in the days of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, there was not one House Sparrow or starling in North America, and the only pigeons here were domestic birds shipped in from Europe for food or relaying messages. The first European Starlings to set foot on our continent were brought here by a group of New York Shakespearean fanatics on March 16, 1890. They set 60 of them free in Central Park in a mission to introduce to America every bird ever mentioned in a play or sonnet by Shakespeare. Starlings hardly featured prominently in Shakespeare–the word is used only once–in King Henry the Fourth, where Hotspur says, “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’” but that was all this group needed.

Starlings are sort of the avian equivalent of the Norway rat. Konrad Lorenz recommends them highly as pets because, like rats, they’re both intelligent and adaptable enough to tame easily. Starlings can mimic an incredible variety of sounds, being in the same family as mynah birds. Because Starlings aren’t native American birds or rare exotics from the tropics, they aren’t protected by law, and so it’s perfectly legal to take them into captivity.

But, like rats, starlings are a serious problem. They nest in tree cavities and on buildings, where their droppings cause an unsightly and unsanitary mess. People have tried getting rid of them with Roman candles, chemicals, recordings of their distress calls, and even bombs, but the starlings continue to increase. And they aren’t only successful in urban areas–in the wild they take over woodpecker holes, and have been recorded many times killing the woodpeckers, flycatchers, and other songbirds that occupied the cavities first. Starlings are the primary cause of the decimation of several native American birds that simply can’t compete with such an aggressive bird.

House Sparrows, on the other hand, are more innocuous– they’re more like house mice. They’re so tied into the urban and agricultural habitats that they probably haven’t had much impact on native bird populations, but they’re definitely an economic problem to farmers, because they live almost entirely on grain and grain products.

The first House Sparrow introduction, in 1850, was designed to control a cankerworm problem in Brooklyn, but none of the birds released survived to reproduce. In the following decades, though, sparrows were introduced to many more cities by homesick Europeans and civic groups–some cities actually competed to see which could sustain the largest numbers. House Sparrows are testimony to the fact that people shouldn’t go around messing with natural systems or they’ll end up with a lot worse than they bargained for.

Other exotic birds that have been brought to America include Ring-necked Pheasants from China, budgies and cockatiels from Australia, which now breed in south Florida, and European Skylarks, which are established in Vancouver, British Columbia.

America isn’t the only country that imports foreign birds. British game keepers and bird lovers have attempted to introduce over a hundred species to England in the past hundred years, but only two American species have become established there–the Canada Goose and the Ruddy Duck. Most American birds are homebodies, and unlike starlings and sparrows, aren’t at all interested in colonizing foreign lands.

(Recording of a House Sparrow) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”