Aliens Among Us: Eurasian Starling

Eurasian Starling, Ada County, Idaho

Eurasian Starling, Ada County, Idaho

New York pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin was the chairman of the American Acclimatization Society, which tried to introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare into North America.

Unhappily, the Eurasian Starling is mentioned in Henry IV, Part I, when the hasty and intemperate Hotspur, annoyed with King Henry because he will not ransom Hotspur’s brother-in-law, Mortimer, 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!’
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.

Henry IV, Part I, Act I, Scene 3

That brief mention is why we have 200 million Eurasian Starlings in North America today. Schieffelin released 60 starlings in 1890 into New York’s Central Park. 126 years later, starlings are found from Alaska to Central America. They are aggressive cavity nesters, and evict native species like woodpeckers, bluebirds, chickadees and mosquito-eating swallows.

While large flocks of starlings can put on an impressive show, there is no question that they have had very serious negative impacts on a number of other bird species, and in their overwhelming numbers, can can eat and damage fruit in orchards, including grapes, peaches, olives, currants and tomatoes, and dig up newly sown grain and sprouting crops. Agricultural damage in the US is estimated as costing about US$800 million annually. As just one example, a single starling can eat an ounce of grain a day. A flock of 10,000 starlings – and flocks can be much larger than that – can consume 10,000 ounces of grain a day, or 9.4 tons a month. That’s a lot of starling poop.

Efforts to control starling populations have been mostly unsuccessful. A specially developed poison – DRC-1339, now marketed as Starlicide – has been used. In 2008, the United States government reportedly poisoned, shot or trapped some 1.7 million birds, the largest number of any nuisance species to be destroyed. Despite that slaughter, in 2009, the population in the United States was estimated at 140 million birds. To WC, that seems low.

Eurasian Starlings, Homedale, Idaho, January 9

Eurasian Starlings, Homedale, Idaho, January 9

It is extremely likely that this introduced species will ever be extirpated from North America. It can only serve as an object lesson: it is much easier to introduce a species than it is to eliminate it later. A sensible culture would take appropriate steps to prevent similar occurrences. But we’re talking about Americans.