For the Birds Radio Program: European Starling with Paul Schmitz as Hotspur

Original Air Date: Oct. 31, 1990

Paul Schmitz helps Laura give some interesting history about starlings and Shakespeare.

Audio missing


(Paul Schmitz reading from King Henry IV, Part I)

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.”

William Shakespeare wrote that speech for Hotspur in The First Part of King Henry IV almost 400 years ago, in 1597. Shakespeare may have had an enormous ego—I don’t know about that—but no matter how full of himself he was, I’ll bet he never ever guessed that 300 years later, his simple little speech would change the entire bird life on the North American continent forever.

Actually, at the time he wrote Henry IV, Shakespeare probably didn’t think much about America. The Mayflower wasn’t set to sail for another 23 years, and most English people had little knowledge or interest in such a faraway land. Probably the closest Shakespeare ever came to anything American was his Christmas dinner. Domestic turkeys originally taken from Mexico by Spanish conquistadors were first brought to England sometime between 1525 and 1532, and were on English Christmas menus by 1585. But world trade wasn’t all that organized back then, and so the English believed that the turkeys had been brought there from the Middle Eastthat’s how turkeys got their English name. So even if Shakespeare actually sat down and ate a North American bird, he wasn’t any the wiser.

Not only did Shakespeare not know anything about North American birds—he didn’t know much about European birds, either. It is true that starlings are close relatives to mynahs, and that a starling might be taught to speak “Mortimer,” but it could hardly be taught to speak nothing but “Mortimer.” Unlike Mynahs, which say one thing at a time, starlings weave a long jumble of imitations into their vocalizations, along with notes that are distinctively their own.

Shakespeare was probably thinking about mynahs when he wrote the play. He most assuredly didn’t imagine that a simple misidentification would affect birdlife across the ocean. As a matter of fact, I suspect that few people in the world ever think about Shakespeare and North American birds at the same time.

But in the late 1800s, a New York drug manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelen decided that America’s birdlife needed a bit of high culture, and started a club whose aim was to import to America every bird ever mentioned in a play by Shakespeare. Most of the introduced birds didn’t increase and multiply. English Robin Red-breasts don’t migrate, so they couldn’t survive the New York winter. Other birds had too much competition from native birds or from the abundant House Sparrows that had been imported to hundreds of cities before the Civil War.

Then, on March 16, 1890, Eugene Schieffelen’s group finally staged a successful introduction when they released 60 starlings in Central Park. Within weeks a pair was nesting under the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History. The next spring, Schieffelen’s club released another 40 as a backup.

Descendents of the original two New York flocks reached Michigan and Wisconsin in the early 1920s, and MInnesota in 1929. From that odd Elizabethan-inspired beginning 100 years ago, starlings have become the most abundant species in all of North America, numbering in the 100s of millions.