Missy Dunaway

Birds of Shakespeare: European Starling (Sturnus Vulgaris), 2022 (2/75)

Limited Edition Giclee Print

30 x 22 in

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Painting Key

Fauna: 3 European starlings, starling murmurations, prey for Common starlings in the United States: 7 green June beetles, 2 eastern lubber grasshoppers

Flora: Food source in North America: Virginia creeper, food source in Europe: English ivy, nesting material: dry grass

Objects: European starling nest, 6 European starling eggs, 6 European starling feathers

Plants mentioned by Shakespeare: Ivy (Hedera helix)

Literary Guide

 

Occurrences in text: 1 | Plays: 1 Henry IV | Name as it appears in the text: “starling”

 

A solitary starling forms a triangular shape in flight that resembles a dark arrowhead. Together, starlings form shape-shifting formations called murmurations that resemble a dense school of fish. These gigantic swarms of starlings move as one, rolling over landscapes and changing direction at whim. The most spectacular murmurations are seen in northern Scotland between December and January.

 

The starling is one of the avian world’s most talented language mimics. It can imitate consecutive sentences of human speech in a mechanical-sounding voice. It adds to its immense vocabulary throughout its lifetime, even learning the songs of other birds.1

 

The starling’s capacity to mimic human language is alluded to in 1 Henry IV. Henry Hotspur fantasizes about training a starling to repeat “Mortimer” in order to goad King Henry IV into paying ransom to rescue Mortimer from prison.

 

1 Henry IV, Act I, Scene 3, Line 553

 

Henry Hotspur: Nay, I will; that's flat:
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.

 

The starling is only mentioned once by Shakespeare. Still, it has become one of the most prominent representatives of Shakespeare’s birds due to an occurrence in New York City three hundred years later. In 1890, a member of the American Acclimatization Society named Eugene Schieffelin set free one hundred starlings in Central Park. The starlings flourished in North America, growing to today’s estimated population of 200 million.2

Urban legend describes Schieffelin as an eccentric socialite who wanted to bring every bird species mentioned by The Bard to the United States. However, no recorded words from Schieffelin, firsthand account, or even a secondhand account exists to corroborate the tale.

 

Two researchers at Duke University, Lauren Fugate and John MacNeill Miller, dug to the bottom of this legend in their 2021 article, “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.”3 Their research and evidence support that Schieffelin was likely following the mission of his naturalist club, the American Acclimatization Society. This popular, global community exchanged plant and animal species between continents to study how species adapted to new environments.4

 

Eugene Schieffelin’s 1906 obituary offers another theory: he was an avid gardener hoping to find a bird that would eradicate a caterpillar invading his garden in Madison Square Park:

 

He was the first to import English sparrows into this country—his purpose being to exterminate the caterpillars which infested the trees in Madison Square where the Schieffelin home was. He imported and liberated many other species of birds, among them the starling.5

 

Schieffelin’s obituary describes his involvement in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, his love of painting, his career as a pharmacist, and confirms the starling release—but does not mention Shakespeare or even an interest in theater.

 

Edwin Way Teale, a twentieth-century naturalist writer, provides the earliest record of the Shakespeare intention forty-one years after Schieffelin’s death.6 In his 1947 essay, “In Defense of the Pesky Starling,” Teale presents Schieffelin’s Shakespeare intention as fact:

 

Their coming was the result of one man’s fancy. That man was Eugene Schief-felin, a wealthy New York drug manufacturer. His curious hobby was the introduction into America of all the birds mentioned in William Shakespeare.7

 

Teale’s unpublished notes capture his uncertainty about the idea and reveal that he was offering a personal hypothesis.8 Teale was drawing a correlation between two popular trends of the late nineteenth century: acclimatization and Shakespeare commemorative gardens.9

 

It’s true that a Shakespeare garden was constructed in Central Park in 1913; the same park as Schieffelin’s starling release and very close to where the first recognized North American starling nest was discovered.10 However, the garden was constructed seven years after Schieffelin’s death.

 

Schieffelin’s supposed Shakespeare intention was fully realized in a 1974 article written by Robert Cantwell for Sports Illustrated. Cantwell recast the elderly pharmacist as a glamorous socialite with an eccentric love of the theater. He embellishes the story with fictional flair that fascinated readers, cementing Schieffelin in modern folklore:11

 

The man who released the birds was Eugene Schieffelin, an elegant and eccentric figure in New York high society... He was lean, handsome, aristocratic, with thin features, a prominent nose and a thick drooping mustache.12

 

At the time of Schieffelin’s starling introduction, the species was in decline. After Schieffelin’s release, the starling rebounded, overcorrecting to being an invasive species in North America. There is evidence to support that the starling has assimilated into the North American landscape without disrupting native bird populations.13 Some scientists still argue that starlings force native birds to compete for food and nesting sites. This attitude was prevalent in the mid 1900s when the starling was commonly depicted as a foreign pest infringing on the rights of native birds.14 Today, scientists question if this is a political, nationalistic attitude inappropriately applied to nature.15

 

The starling’s status as an invasive species is uncertain because they are so difficult to track.16 Starling migration paths are erratic, unpredictable, and itinerant— presenting challenges in observing long-term effects.17 Some scientists assert that the starling moves along to a new location before it can overwhelm resident birds.18 Furthermore, it is difficult to place blame on the starling when so many factors threaten birds and contribute to their decline, including but not limited to habitat destruction, suburban sprawl, climate change, pesticides, and pollution.

 

The starling’s American origin story, talent for language, awesome murmurations, and effect on avian neighbors are all befuddling. Perhaps the greatest riddle is how a common bird whose abundance creates black clouds in the sky can still be shrouded in so much mystery.

Endnotes

 

[1] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871)


[2] "European Starling.” All About Birds. The Cornell Lab. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/European_Starling/overview. Accessed Apr

il 5, 2022.


[3] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.

 

[4] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.

 

[5] "Obituary: Schieffelin, Eugene.” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Volume 37, Page 317.
 

[6] Teale, Edwin Way. “In Defense of the Pesky Starling.” Coronet Magazine, November 1947.
 

[7] Teale, Edwin Way. “In Defense of the Pesky Starling.” Coronet Magazine, November 1947.
 

[8] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.
 

[9] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.
 

[10] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.
 

[11] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.
 

[12] Cantwell, Robert. “A Plague of Starlings. Sports Illustrated, September 9, 1974.
 

[13] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.
 

[14] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.
 

[15] Hofmeister, Natalie. “Essay: Are Starlings Really “Invasive Aliens”?” All About Birds. The Cornell Lab.
https://www .allaboutbirds.org/news/essay-are-starlings-really-invasive- aliens/#:~:text=Officially%2C%20the%20European%20Starling%20is,our%20ecosystem%20and%20our%20economy. Accessed April 5, 2022.
 

[16] Sibley, David. “Questions about Starling Migration.” Sibley Guides. November 11, 2010. https://www.sibleyguides.com/2010/11/questions-about-starling-migration/ Accessed April 5, 2020.
 

[17] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.
 

[18] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.