I have spent most of today looking out my back window and watching all sorts of bird behaviors. The chickadees have been hunting and gleaning up and down the spruce branches, the male mourning doves have been following the females on their head-jerking walks around the yard obviously ready to start the second clutch of the season, and the blue jays have been laying themselves flat on the hot concrete of the basketball court, spreading out their wing and tail feathers to cook out some of their lice and mites. The robins have been hunting for worms over on the shady lawn, and the chipping sparrows are pecking at (to me) invisible tidbits on both the grass and the sidewalk. The activity of all of these different species seems almost orchestrated. Each bird moves through its section of the habitat looking for its type of food and none of them seem to interfere with the others.
But then two birds arrive that disrupt the harmony of this ecological dance: European starlings (pictured above) and English sparrows (pictured to the left).
Both of these species were brought to North America back in the Nineteenth Century. The starlings have a very definite place and time of introduction: Central Park in New York City in 1890. The person who released these sixty (or sometimes reported to have been one hundred) starlings was Eugene Schieffelin, and his intention, as president of the “American Acclimatization Society,” was to introduce into North America all of the bird species mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. So, because in “Henry IV, Part 1” Hotspur plots to have a trained starling saying the name “Mortimer” over and over to Henry with the intent of driving him mad, we got these sixty (or one hundred) starlings that then spread all across the continent and now number between two hundred million to seven hundred and fifty million individuals! They also cause eight hundred million dollars in agricultural crop damage each year and via spreading disease among cattle and pigs in feed lots probably that much again in damage to meat production. Almost two million starlings are killed each year via various pest control procedures, but as one control agent put it, the effectiveness of these control measures are “like trying to bail the ocean with a thimble.”
There is a flock of fifty to one hundred starlings that roosts down the street. They cover the lawns and fields between their roost and my house, and they fill up the branches of my neighbor’s locust trees, but they seldom come into my yard. When they do swoop in the other bird species scatter and the ecological dance collapses.
Starlings are very aggressive “secondary cavity” nesters. They seek out sheltered nesting sites and evict any bird that might have been in possession of the site. This disruption of the nesting behaviors of other bird species (and the starling’s predilection to eat both eggs and nestlings of those other bird species) along with the starling’s dominant behaviors in their feeding habitats (they are quite omnivorous and will eat invertebrates, small vertebrates, seeds, and fruits … anything that is available!) have been a significant factor in the overall decline of song bird populations in North America.
There is a group that denies any of this is going on. These starling-apologists feel that it is a media-led witch hunt that has led to the bad image of this species. Even a casual reading of “Starling Central’s” web site, though, makes it very clear that their assertions are based on carefully assembled and edited facts.
I want to say some nice things about starlings, though. They sing beautifully and with a wide range of original and imitated songs. They can even be taught to speak (you could teach one to say “Mortimer” over and over!). They have beautiful, iridescent, black feathers that initially form with white tips (making the bird look spotted right after its molt), but the tips wear down and leave the shiny black plumage in its place. The very name “starling” refers to their star-like appearance in flight: a sharp pointed beak, two pointed wings, and a short, pointed tail.
Now many people really do hate starlings, but the level of antipathy to them is nothing compared to the rage of true lovers of nature that is directed at English sparrows. There was an article in the New York Times this spring in which the writer described the behavior of her mother, a kind and gentle woman who loved birds dearly, and her on-going vendetta against English sparrows (there was a scene at a birthday party in which a sack of caught sparrows were gassed in auto exhaust that was particularly ghastly).
English sparrows (also called “house sparrows”) have a murkier North American origin than starlings. Again in the late Nineteenth Century there was an active program in many cities across the country to import and establish this species. Various reasons are given for this: it was thought that the sparrows would eat insect pests. It was thought that they would peck grains out of horse manure (a big pollution problem on city streets!) and accelerate its decomposition. There is also some reference to people simply liking sparrows and wanting them around them! And, our old friends of the American Acclimatization Society also cited “Hamlet” Act 5, Scene 2 with Hamlet saying “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” and used it to justify bringing hundreds of birds over to the States. So from its multiple points of introduction, the English sparrow now numbers a hundred to a hundred and fifty million individuals in North America (There are five hundred and forty million individuals world-wide, and they are found on every continent except Antarctica!).
Why are English sparrows so hated? They are very aggressive toward other bird species (a list of seventy different types of birds that are attacked by English sparrows was posted on one web site), they evict other birds from their nests and destroy their eggs or kill their nestlings, and they very aggressively compete for food at a wide range of potential feeding sites and habitats. They also form large colonies in close association with people and even frequently flock with starlings! Their interactions with eastern bluebirds (which include forcing the bluebirds out of their tree hole nesting sites and human-made nesting boxes and the killing of bluebird nestlings) have in particular energized many in the birding community to wage all-out war on these sparrows.
But, English sparrows are not evil. They do suffer from being way too successful in their introduced ranges, and they have a great ability to thrive on the wastes of human society (they are the “French fry” bird around every fast food restaurant in the United States!), but they still have many characteristics that are admirable and worthy of note. The Humane Society of the United States has a long web page dedicated to consideration of the English sparrow as a very misunderstood and misrepresented species. Like the starling-apologist group, though, the Humane Society is a bit selective in their facts and seems to intentionally ignore less seemly features of this bird.
We have to remember that there is no good or evil in nature. Survival for any species in any environment can require some ugly behaviors and some seemingly cruel strategies. A moral system and society based on Nature would be a very unpleasant place to live! European starlings and English sparrows are here to stay. I guess that we have to just get used to them!