For the Birds Radio Program: European Starling

Original Air Date: March 19, 1991

Laura talks about a pesky but interesting bird that has been in America for 101 years, and explains why introductions of exotic animals are usually harmful. (This program definitely aired this week, but date is not certain.)

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Last weekend we marked the one hundred and first anniversary of the introduction of the European Starling to America. On March 16, 1890, sixty starlings were released in New York City’s Central Park by a group of Shakespearean fanatics that decided to release to America every bird ever mentioned by William Shakespeare. In King Henry IV part 1, Shakespeare unfortunately had Hotspur say, “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to say nothing but Mortimer.” That little line sealed the fate of our nation, or at least its birdlife. Starlings are now the most abundant bird species on the continent, killing and displacing billions of native birds every year.

Starlings can be taught to imitate words, but always do so in a jumble mixed with other sounds. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a pet starling that imitated the musical phrases in his compositions to Mozart’s great delight. The starling’s close relative, the Indian Hill Myna, is more easily taught to speak single words and phrases. Mynas were brought to Europe from India sometime in the fifteenth century, and one was even taught to shout offensive epithets at King Louis XI. This myna may well have been the bird that inspired Shakespeare, and he probably meant myna when he said starling, since the words were used interchangeably back then. If only he had used the ornithologically correct word, the avifauna of the United States and Canada would be completely different now. A small population of Indian Hill Mynas 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, and the Crested Myna is now in serious decline.

The intentional introduction of exotic species is 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 in the countryside—House Sparrows have even burned down buildings by picking up burning cigarette butts and incorporating them into their nests on wooden houses. Both starlings and House Sparrows compete for nesting cavities with native American birds, and several species, such as the Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Bluebird, and Red-headed Woodpecker, have suffered serious population decreases as a result of the starling.

Fish introductions have also backfired. Unintentional introductions of smelt, lampreys, and river ruffe have wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes. Carp introduced in many areas have also caused ecological problems, often ruining the habitat for native fish.

Some species are actually introduced by scientists to control another problem. House Sparrows were originally brought to many cities to control cankerworms and gypsy moths—they soon became a bigger problem than the original pests. And in 1935, 101 cane toads were imported from Hawaii into Australia to 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 now, 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 mess around with Mother Nature.