Tuesday, 28 June 2011

A Pest By Any Other Name

The European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is a common sight among the urban landscape of North America from St. Nich’s to St. John’s.  Well, perhaps not as far north as the North Pole, but you can bet Mr. Claus produces some playful knock-off of this friendly fowl.

The Starling is my personal favorite when it comes to urban aves.  It’s appearance is somewhat of a conundrum.  Iridescent neck feathers display fanciful color schemes commonly found in a French impressionist painting, yet it’s slender and ruffled appearance when wet stir up memories of a rat stuck in a toilet bowl.

While a common enough sight at your local park or even park-ing lot, this bird is in fact an invader.  Although, truthfully this classification isn’t entirely accurate.  Invasion implies that their presence is unwanted, and while this may be true with respect to your grandmother’s strawberry patch, it is in fact false when applied to the vector of the Starling’s arrival.

One look at the Starling and it should be obvious that they are incapable of transatlantic flight.  They can scarcely fly more than 20 feet without stopping to forage with their bright yellow beaks.  This bird made the jump across the pond over a century ago.  A population of about 100 birds was released into New York City’s Central Park under the guidance of the American Acclimatization Society.  The organization had been introducing native European birds to Central park since the 1860s in an attempt to homogenize the North American native birds with European fowl.  Blackbirds, sparrows, and finches had all been introduced with varying success, but it was the Starling that really took flight.

As surprising as the notion of an American Acclimatization Society sounds today, it is not as surprising as the reason for introducing the sparrow.  Then society chairmen, Eugene Schieffelin, being an ardent appreciator of Shakespeare, thought it appropriate to introduce every bird mentioned in the Bard’s 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and several poems.  Clearly, this man outcompeted Darwin’s finches when it came to “nut” jobs.

Mentioned in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, this bird lives up to its modern reputation as a notarized nuisance.  Quoting from the play; the character Hotspur, considers using the bird to drive the King mad and convince him to release his brother-in-law Mortimer from jail:

“I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”                         - King Henry IV Part I

The small population spread plague-like across the continent, outcompeting native birds for nest sites, and spoiling farmer’s crops.  Today the population is estimated at 200 million, and increasing.  Municipalities routinely cull large flocks of Starling’s for their detrimental economic impact.  Their presence has even been known to interfere with air traffic. 

True to Shakespeare’s preferred style, the Starling’s story and indeed the story of many invasive species unfolds more as a tragedy.  The Cane Toad in Australia was introduced to control Cane Beetle populations and now is the cause of ecological annihilation across the island continent.  Rats stowed away on merchant ships are responsible for the loss of countless endemic bird species on islands throughout the world.  While cats introduced to curb rat populations magnified the damage by preying on fledglings.

The danger of a globalized world where humanity’s forceful arm reaches every corner is the homogenization of our natural capital.  As world economies begin to integrate, should that also mean an integration of ecologies?  Just as evolution favored the adaptable Homo sapien, so too will it favor the species adaptable to our own culture. 

We must be mindful of our ecological impact, not just offsetting our footprint, but taking it away completely, including those left behind by previous generations.  The steps necessary to wipe clean the slate are significant.  It may take many species introductions; it may require widespread culling, and tremendous economic stimulus.  Seemingly impossible, yes, especially during times of ‘economic fragility’, but to once again quote the Bard:

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t” – Hamlet (Act II, Scene II)

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