Thursday, 28 March 2013

A pharmacist with a lot to answer for

The Common Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, is found naturally across Europe and western Asia. It is abundant in the UK in winter, when dense flocks of visitors from the east can sometimes be seen at dusk wheeling across the ashen skies before settling down to roost. 

As a pharmacist, I wish to apologise for the actions of a fellow pharmacist 120 years ago. It is thanks to the efforts of this eccentric and misguided New Yorker that the starling is now also to be found coast to coast across North America, as far south as northern Mexico and as far north as sub-Arctic Canada and Alaska. 

The starling’s New World population is now estimated at more than 200 million. In the US, it is generally reviled and is officially branded as a serious pest. It is accused of damaging crops and harming native bird populations by aggressively competing for nest cavities.   

The pharmacist who must take the blame for all this is Eugene Schieffelin (1827–1906). He was a leading light in the American Acclimatization Society, which was founded in 1871 by a group of wealthy New Yorkers who had been trying to introduce European flora and fauna into North America for economic and cultural reasons. The society wanted to establish European birds that were “useful to the farmer and contributed to the beauty of the groves and fields”. These species included the Skylark, Starling, Blackbird, European Robin, House Sparrow and Chaffinch, all of which were released into the city’s Central Park with the approval of the park commissioners. Apart from the House Sparrow — now also found throughout North America — none thrived, even the Starling.

But Schieffelin, the society’s chairman and driving force, was determined to try again and in 1890–91 he released another few dozen Starlings into Central Park. From these few are descended today’s many millions.

Some say that Schieffelin, a Shakespeare enthusiast, wanted New Yorkers to experience every wild bird mentioned in the Bard’s plays. But there is no convincing evidence for this, and apart from the Starling, which the playwright mentioned only in Henry IV, Part 1, he would have had to introduce nearly 50 species, including even the Ostrich.

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