Based on a true story…
Simply put, Eugene Schieffelin was what one would call a hopeless romantic. With plenty of time and even more money, (he had made his fortune years earlier manufacturing (and occasionally indulging in) “pharmaceuticals”), Eugene would waste his days frequenting the numerous New York clubs and organizations that he so proudly belonged*. Yet despite all of his academic appointments and social endeavors, Eugene still found himself to be a man both eternally lost and perpetually bored. Faced with a life void of passion or purpose, he reacted as any romantic would… First he turned towards the bottle, then to various amphetamines and/or opiates of his choosing, (preferably a drip or two of oxymorphone), and then on to the bible for a bit of salvation, (the bible was a big deal back in the 1890’s. yeah, it’s like 1890). Of course, it was only a matter of time until his guilt would wear thin and he’d start it all over again, loosing the bible for yet another bottle.
Eugene continued on in this state for quite some time until one particularly brutish morning where in between bottles and bumps he picked up a random book to pass the time, (by the great William Shakespeare, (but nobody knows which one)), and began to read from it forever sealing his fate. Never before it seemed had he read anything with such substance and meaning. The repressed emotions of every word seemed to pour off the pages in their abundance and into Eugene’s heart filling him with both love and life. For the next six months he left the world behind and did little else then study the works of the great playwright. It seemed as though Eugene had finally found his passion, one in which he could truly love simply for the sake of feeling alive. Now all that was left to do he felt, was to somehow share his enthusiasm with the rest of the world.
It wasn’t until one crisp winters day when Eugene had decided to take a break from his studies and head out for a quick walk around Central Park that inspiration finally struck. He had been walking about for sometime when he suddenly found himself in need of a lavatory. While relieving himself behind a rather sizeable bush of one sort or another, (he was never any good with plant identification nor botany in general for that matter), Eugene became startled when a bird just overhead let out a few sharp squawks. Shaken and most certainly caught off guard, he quickly zipped-up almost loosing his balance and gentlemanly composure. “Nay, I’ll have a Starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer!”, Eugene shouted-out with his fist in the air, frustrated, and now slightly soiled. The quote, taken from King Henry IV, (part 1: act 1, scene 3), had just come to him without a seconds thought, as did his big idea…
In the days that followed he made several arrangements over the wire, (yes, there was only one), in order to purchase and ship a selection of (mostly) live birds from England. Eugene had decided to share his newfound love of Shakespeare with the rest of his fellow New Yorkers by releasing into the wild every species of bird mentioned in the great poems and plays of Sir William Shakespeare**. The first of which was to be the European Starling. He was so filled with anticipation and joy that he could hardly stand it. In fact, for the five days preceding the arrival of what was to be his grand gift to the world, Eugene couldn’t sleep a wink, (but he did pass out from time to time with the help of an alcohol based, opiate syrup). The instant he closed his eyes, he could only see his precious Starlings swimming back and forth across the sky like a large school of fish. The imagery was so fantastic that he would open his eyes again and again hoping to see it so. Disappointed but not disheartened, Eugene knew this would one day soon be true.
Somehow, someway, the days passed on and soon enough the birds did indeed arrive, (all but 3 still chirping). So it was on March 16th 1890 with the help of a few servants, (and a rather large cage might I add), that he made his way through the brisk morning air to a sizeable clearing in the middle of Central Park. It had been snowing off and on for three full days, but the weather was clear and calm for now. The earth below was hidden in snow and the sky had been washed away. Then and there without a word and little fanfare, Eugene Schieffelin released his 60 57 Starlings to the great American landscape and to the good people of New York City. He stood silent gazing up into the sky, and watched the birds collect together in the heavens just as he had dreamed so many times before. The flock flickered from left to right to left in a rhythm set centuries long ago. Slowly they faded from view, falling just out of sight over the frozen horizon. And Eugene, standing as tall as any man could, reached up and gently tipped the brim of his hat.
Today there are an estimated 200 million Starlings in North America, all of which are descendants of Eugene Schieffelin’s original 60. The Starling has distinguished itself as one of the costliest and most noxious birds on our continent, costing an estimated 800 million dollars in damage each year. The majority of this loss is due to the Starlings insatiable appetite and overwhelming abundance. Flocks of a million Starlings or more are not uncommon and can consume up to 20 tons of seed, fruit, and feed in a single day. What they don’t eat they defile with their droppings. Their highly corrosive waste often covers acres of land due to their sizeable hordes, poisoning the soil, destroying crops and damaging vital infrastructure. On one occasion, 11 tons of excrement had to be scrapped off of the dome atop the state capitol building in Springfield Illinois. What’s worse is that through their feces and range of habitat, Starlings spread a number of dangerous diseases across the country including, but not limited to, Aspergillosis, Blastomycosis, Histoplasmosis, Toxoplasmosis, Samonella, and New Castle’s Disease, (believe me, you don’t want to know what these are, or do). Starlings are also known to roost near airports and are primarily responsible for the hundreds of in-air incidents involving “bird strikes” that cripple and/or crash several planes every year. In 1960 10-20,000 Starlings flew straight into a Lockheed Electra taking off from Boston’s Logan Airport failing all four of its jet engines. The airplane immediately went down sinking into the icy harbor and killing 62 people on board while injuring hundreds of others. Every year the United States government spends millions of tax dollars trying in vain to limit or lower the Starling population. In what could be considered an act of desperation, U.S. agents poisoned, shot and trapped 1.7 million starlings in 2008 alone, more than any other nuisance species. There is still no end in sight.
*He was in fact a member of 1.) The New York Genealogical and Biographic Society, 2.) The New York Zoological Society, 3.) The Society of Colonial Wars, 4.) The St. Nicholas Club, 5.) The St. Nicholas Society, 6.) The Acclimation Society of North America and 7.) The Union Club of New York, thank you very much.
**The Birds of Shakespeare are, (in alphabetical order), the Blackbird, Bunting, Buzzard, Chough, Cock, Cormorant, Crow, Cuckoo, Dive-dapper, Dove and Pigeon, Duck, Eagle, Falcon and Sparrowhawk, Finch, Goose, Hedge Sparrow, House Martin, Jackdaw, Jay, Kite, Lapwing, Lark, Loon, Magpie, Nightingale, Osprey, Ostrich, Owl, Parrot, Partridge, Peacock, Pelican, Pheasant, Quail, Raven, Robin, Snipe, Sparrow, Starling, Swallow, Swan, Thrush, Turkey, Vulture, Wagtail, Woodcock and the Wren.