European starlings are one of the most common bird species in the United States. They are known for their stunning aerial displays (murmerations), but many observers consider them a curse.
Starlings aggressively compete for the nesting places of native birds; they can damage crops (grapes, olives, cherries, grain) and spread disease; they can mess up the environment and be a threat to aviation. The story of invasive starlings is part of a wider narrative that reflects both the ambitions and fears of the Victorian era.
Mid-nineteenth century Europe was concerned about the rapid expansion of urban centers and the loss of agricultural land. Thomas Malthus had introduced into contemporary thinking unnerving notions of over-population and food scarcity. As a consequence, acclimatization societies were formed that encouraged the introduction of non-native plant and animal species, and test their ability to adapt in a new environment. Zoophagy was a related research domain concerned with the edibility of animals or animal matter. This was not a feast for epicureans, but the domain of naturalists and zoologists.
The first of its kind was the Parisian Société Zoologique d’Acclimatation, founded in 1854 by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. The organization aimed at promoting the cultivation of imported species for consumption. The Australian kangaroo, the South African peetsi (zebra), and the Tibetan kiang (wild ass) were raised in the Jardin d’Acclimatation with the ultimate ambition of presenting them in edible form to the citizens of France. Ironically, during the 1870 Prussian Siege of Paris many of the Jardin’s animals were consumed by starving members of the public, including the African elephants Castor and Pollux.
The concept of acclimatization spread around the world. Organizations pushed forward both the study of natural history and the methodology for dealing with newly introduced species. During the later decades of the nineteenth century, acclimatization was the paradigmatic colonial science with applications as diverse as agriculture, colonial settlement, and public health. It was offered as a possible solution to anticipated food shortages in Europe’s exploding cities. Physicians researched ways for westerners to survive in hostile environments, while colonial administrators, landowners, zoo keepers, and naturalists came together to promote the exchange of plant and animal species.
Mice for Mankind
On January 21, 1859, a dinner meeting of naturalists took place at the London Tavern on Bishopsgate Street. The servings included a large pike, American partridges, a young bean goose, and an African eland. At the meeting David William Mitchell, Secretary of the Zoological Society of London, suggested that many exotic animals could survive locally. Eland venison in particular was a nutritious dish that in due time could be enjoyed by thousands of people. A year later, the Acclimatization Society was formally founded and Frank Buckland appointed its Secretary. Each year the Society held a banquet at which guests would sample untried meats, including sheep from China, wild boar from Germany, deer from Virginia, Syrian pig, curassow, long-eared rabbit, pintail duck, and salted mullet eggs from the Bay of Naples.
Frank Buckland proved the perfect leader for the movement. His father William was a paleontologist and a Fellow of Corpus Christi, Oxford. William claimed to have eaten his way through the animal kingdom. Crocodile, toasted earwigs, boiled moles, and garden slugs masquerading as escargots were among the dishes reported by visiting scientists and other guests. Frank shared his father’s interests. As a boy, he had experimented with squirrel pie, mice cooked in batter, hedgehogs, and frogs. At Oxford he feasted on a panther sent to him from Surrey Zoological Gardens. The beast had been buried for two days, but Buckland got attendants to dig it up. Summoned to Gravesend to examine a stranded whale, he tasted a portion but found it “too strong, even when boiled with charcoal.” From London Zoo he received an elephant trunk which he made into a soup; rhinoceros parts were sent to him and baked into a huge pie.
Buckland was not considered a crackpot by his contemporaries. His eccentric “research” was taken seriously. Even Charles Darwin corresponded with him, asking for advice. Frank represented a generation that was morbidly concerned with the problems of urbanization, the decline of agriculture, and the continuation of food supplies to rapidly expanding cities. Buckland ate mice to save mankind.
In the end he came to the conclusion that the best way to feed protein-starved families was to ensure a dependable supply of fish. From 1859 he devoted his life to the maintenance of waterways, eventually being appointed Her Majesty’s Inspector of Salmon Fisheries. He became a preservationist and did much to battle river pollution.
The eating of exotic creatures was not restricted to European tables. On March 3, 1905 The New York Times reported on an annual dinner organized by the Canadian Camp society of hunters and explorers at the new Astor Hotel on Time Square, Manhattan. The menu included puree of Indiana raccoon, stew of Canadian muskrat, and skunk pie. The piece de resistance was presented as “filet of Bornean rhinoceros, sent from the Berlin Zoological Gardens with the compliments of his Royal Highness Prince Henry of Prussia,” although the paper suggests that it may have been bear’s meat, or moose, or possibly plain beef. American acclimatists however concentrated on different issues.
Descending from German-American colonists and the first Chief Justice of the United States, the Schieffelin dynasty held a prominent position in Manhattan’s early history. The family owned pharmaceutical and distilling companies and were wine importers. Like in every lineage, there were oddballs in its ranks. From 1877, amateur ornithologist Eugene Schieffelin was Chairman of the American Acclimatization Society (founded in New York in 1871). He would leave a bird poop stain on the family name.
The Society’s main aim was to introduce outlandish animals and plants to enrich natural variety. At the time of Eugene’s appointment, it had – according to The New York Times – already released English sparrows and skylarks, Javanese sparrows, and Japanese finches to American skies. Schieffelin was a cultured man with a fetish for Shakespeare. His wealth allowed him to turn a dream into a master plan. He set out to gather all birds referenced in Shakespeare’s plays and introduce them to the United States.
A watch of nightingales was soon wiped out; a charm of finches experienced the same fate; an exaltation of larks did not survive the harsh New York winter; but a host of sparrows did adapt to their new environment. Emboldened by this success, Eugene identified another bird in the first part of the Bard’s Henry IV. The starling is mentioned (once) in a scene in which Hotspur ponders about ways of annoying the King. The bird is introduced as an irritant to Henry IV. Shakespeare’s starling is a nuisance.
Plague of Starlings
From England, Schieffelin ordered sixty starlings and had them transported to New York. On March 6, 1890, the birder and his servants entered Central Park carrying cages with noisy, oil-black birds never seen before in the country to be released into the metropolitan sky. Eugene repeated the stunt the following year with another forty starlings imported from Europe (at great expense). A century of starlings responded to their transplantation. They settled right into the park, prospered, and went on the move. By 1930, they had crossed the Mississippi; twenty years later, they had spread to the West Coast. Within a century, they numbered 200 million.
Alarm bells started ringing about the rapid spread of the bird and campaigns were launched to stop its proliferation. Congress passed the Lacey Act in 1900, allowing authorities to ban the importation of non-native species. Specific mention was made of English sparrows, starlings, and other breeds that could harm crop production and horticulture. By then it was too late. In the 1930s, the federal government tried to convince Americans to eat starlings, even proposing sample meat-pie recipes. The experiment failed in spite of Great Depression starvation (according to the Oxford Companion of Food, starlings had been available in London food shops, but the absence of recipes in cookery books suggests that they have never been regarded as delicacies or eaten on a large scale).
In his classic opening section to Émile, ou De l’éducation (1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau had warned against man’s hubris of manipulating the natural world and the urge of our “meddling intellect” to interfere and control: “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man. He forces one soil to nourish the products of another, one tree to bear the fruits of another. He mixes and confuses the climates, the elements, the seasons.”
Nineteenth-century science worshipers and believers in the Advancement of Mankind rejected such “passive” attitudes. Nature needed a helping hand. The fatal metaphor of Progress unleashed environmental havoc for which succeeding generations have paid dearly. The often eccentric and seemingly amusing acclimatization societies of the second half of the nineteenth century caused lasting ecological damage.
Photos, from above: A murmuration of starlings; 1878 poster advertising a new train ride to the Jardin d’Acclimatation; Frank Buckland’s sturgeon alarming his household: contemporary magazine engraving (Gordon Edmondson Sturgeon Collection); Hotel Astor menu; and illustration of Shakespeare’s birds.