For the Birds Radio Program: Mortimer

Original Air Date: June 19, 1989

Laura talks about the Shakespearean origin of starlings in America and about one particular little baby starling. (3:59) Date verified.

Audio missing



(Recording of a European Starling)

Sometime around the year 1597, William Shakespeare wrote a historical play, the “First Part of King Henry the Fourth,” never dreaming that one short speech in the drama would change American ornithology forever. In Act I, scene iii, Hotspur, who wants the king to ransom his brother-in-law Mortimer from a Welsh warrior, says, “He said he would not ransom Mortimer;/ Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;/ But I will find him when he lies asleep,/ And in his ear I’ll holla ‘Mortimer!’/ Nay,/ I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak/ Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him,/ To keep his anger still in motion.”

Nearly 300 years later, a man named Eugene Schieffelen of New York City led his Shakespearean club in a plan to import into the United States every bird species mentioned in a play or sonnet by Shakespeare. Thanks to that one little speech of Hotspur’s, Schieffelen and his cronies released 60 European Starlings in Central Park on March 16, 1890.

The introduction was successful—within weeks a pair was nesting under the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History, and the species immediately underwent an unprecedented population explosion. As they increased and multiplied, with additional help from the same Shakespearean fanatics the following spring, who introduced another 40 in Central Park, starlings soon were expanding their range to cover much of the eastern seaboard.

It took a few decades for them to make it to the midwest, but they made it to southern Wisconsin by 1928, and were first recorded in Minnesota on October 17, 1931. By this time there were so many starlings everywhere in the east that their expansion further west went much quicker—by 1941 they had been noted in Montana, and were recorded all the way over at Portland, Oregon, in 1947.

Now this species, native to Europe and Africa, is considered to be one of the most abundant bird species in North America, numbering well over 200 million, and is considered one of the prime causes in the decline of many native species, especially bluebirds, flickers, and Great Crested Flycatchers, because the starling takes over nesting cavities and boxes from them. The starling also causes hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to grain crops in the midwest every winter.

So the question is, why the heck did Shakespeare do it? Can a starling really be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer’? Apparently there is some question whether Shakespeare was really thinking of a starling at all when he wrote the words—although there are some reports that starlings can be taught to mimic human speech, at least some of the authors were actually referring to a close relative of the starling, the Indian Hill Myna.

Well, this summer I’m going to settle the question once and for all. I’m currently taking care of a baby starling, which I got when its eyes were still closed, and I’ve decided to allow it to imprint on me in order to see if I can get it to imitate me. I naturally named the little guy Mortimer. At this point, he’s just making normal starling nestling sounds—all kinds of cheeping noises whenever he sees or hears me, demanding food. But he’s growing quickly, and as time goes by, he’ll change his tune, and so I’m repeating to him over and over, “Nothing but Mortimer. Nothing but Mortimer.”

(Recording of a European Starling)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”