For the Birds Radio Program: Introduced Birds

Original Air Date: March 16, 1989

The European Starling was introduced to North America 99 years ago today. To mark the occasion, Laura Erickson talks about how it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Audio missing


(Recording of a European Starling)

Today is the 99th anniversary of the introduction of the European Starling to the United States. On March 16, 1890, 60 starlings were released in New York City’s Central Park by a group of Shakespearian fanatics that decided to release to America every bird ever mentioned by William Shakespeare. In King Henry the Fourth, Shakespeare unfortunately made Hotspur say, “He said he would not ransom Mortimer, Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he lies asleep, and in his ear I’ll hollow “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.”

That little line sealed the fate of our nation—starlings are now the most abundant species on the continent, causing billions of dollars of damage every year.

Ironically, there was a better choice for Shakespeare’s line that would have fit the metre perfectly. Starlings can be taught to imitate sounds including words, but their close relative, the Indian Hill Mynah, is more easily taught to speak. Mynahs were brought to Europe from India sometime in the fifteenth century, and were even trained to shout offensive epithets at King Louis XI. This myna may well have been the bird Shakespeare meant, since the word starling was often used as a common name for the myna. If only he would have said what he meant, the avifauna of the United States would be completely different now. A small population of Indian Hill Mynahs has been established from escaped cage birds in Homestead, Florida, and the Crested Myna, another close relative was introduced to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, but neither species has spread to the rest of the continent.

The intentional introduction of exotic species is generally misguided. Rabbits introduced to Australia have caused billions of dollars of agricultural damage. House Sparrows and starlings introduced to North America have caused problems in cities as well as on farms. Both species compete for nesting cavities with native American birds, and several species, such as the Great Crested Flycatcher, the Eastern Bluebird, and the Red-headed Woodpecker have suffered population decreases as a result of the starling. Fish introductions have often backfired. Unintentional introductions of smelt, lampreys, and river ruffe have wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes. Carp introduced in many areas have caused problems, too.

Some species are actually introduced by scientists in order to control another problem. House Sparrows were brought to many cities in the 1800’s in order to control cankerworms and gypsy moths—they soon became a bigger problem than the original pests. And in Australia, in 1935, 101 cane toads were imported from Hawaii in hopes that they would control an outbreak of cane beetles that was threatening the sugar crop. The toads ignored the beetles, but did eat native Australian snakes and frogs which otherwise would have eaten at least some of the beetles. The cane toad secretes a poison that kills predators, and now this toad’s population, still growing at a phenomenal rate, numbers far more than a million. And yet, apparently ignoring their original mistake, biologists are talking about introducing a parasite or disease organism to control the introduced toad. On this anniversary of the introduction of the starling, we need to think about how foolish it is for people to meddle with natural systems.

(Recording of a European Starling)

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