For the birds

For the birds blog
The AGM of the American Acclimatization Society (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2019)

On one of those leisurely disengaged days between Christmas and New Year – you know, you’ve just finished an extended breakfast at around 11 and have no particular plans for the day – a few of us started discussing murmurations of starlings. I wondered aloud if starlings were common in the U.S. and it transpires that they are, all thanks to the American Acclimatization Society and especially a man called Eugene Schieffelin.

It is said, though not proven, that Eugene insisted that as an aesthetic goal the organization should introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare (of whom Eugene was an avid admirer). Whether you think Eugene was a hero or a villain depends on your view of Victorian scientists playing God. One could argue that if the Deity had wanted there to be starlings in North America, He, above all, was well-placed to put them there. Whether it would be wise to wait for a rather obsessive New York pharmacist to get the itch seems rather hit and miss to me.

It’s usually the case that if you introduce a foreign species into an ecosystem things start to go wrong in a Sorcerer’s Apprentice kind of way. Sure enough, the 100 or so starlings that the Society let go in Central Park now number over 200 million across North America. They have endangered other native species competing for nesting places and food – especially the delightfully-named sapsucker – and have even been blamed for the spread of English ivy throughout the continent. In 2007 the San Francisco Chronicle called Eugene’s Society “the canonic cautionary tale of biological pollution.” That’s a high price to pay even for some pretty spectacular murmurations out west.

It’s not recorded whether the members of the AAS dressed up in comedy bird beaks, indulged in avian puns and got up to the sort of high jinks  pictured above, but I like to think they did. You had to make your own entertainment in those days, after all. They strike me as an idealistic, sentimental and innocent bunch, but as history as demonstrated time and again, those are probably the most dangerous people of all.

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19 thoughts on “For the birds”

  1. Great drawing, and what an interesting story. How about depicting something about cane toads ( deliberately introduced from Hawaii to Australia in 1935, to control scarab beetles that were pests of sugar cane) which are decimating my country? There’s got to be some fun ‘toady’ images you can come up with as you’ve obviously got a good sense of humour!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, hunting toads is now quite big business as they are a huge menace, but rather than simply disposing of them the skins are now used for leather. In fact I attended a book making workshop and constructed the cover from cane toad skin. This leather is easily recognisable as there are small hard patches within the skin where the poison glands were located.
        Animals and birds have become very smart and don’t attack them in general because of the poison aspect but that means they can multiply without much restraint. I understand one of the most humane ways of killing them is to put them in the freezer alive (!) but that was banned years ago but I don’t think any of the other methods are much better. Maybe a cold sleep and slip into death isn’t actually too bad, or painful.
        As the problem is massive now I guess someone was always going to find a way to use them commercially.
        Would love to see you draw them.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Definitely dangerous. But I like the NYC starlings. They have such a repertoire of songs! In one of my old apartments my kitchen window looked out over the rooftop next door and they used to greet the mornings with singing. I’m never certain now when I hear a bird if it’s really the bird, or a starling imitation. (K)

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  3. Groan, those puns are painful, but delightfully so with the illustration! I hate to think the innocent idealists are the most dangerous of all (with our president, it seems the opposite may be true) but yes, the long term results of that experiment were really not good. Being a birder who lived in NYC for many years, I’m familiar with that story but I hadn’t heard that starlings are blamed for all the English ivy. It’s a scourge even here in the Pacific northwest! But I stopped an pulled over last month to watch a great starling murmuration, so it’s not all bad. Thanks for a delightful post.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m just kidding about the puns, they’re fun, but one has to groan. Yes, it’s a breathtaking sight – I always want to pull over when I see it (I guess I”m usually driving!) and luckily, the last time I could.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. LOVE puns! They make my brain fizzy. So does that delightful drawing. The invasive species thing – troubling. Needs to be talked about. Super post! (And a special round of ::applause:: for the word “murmurations.” It’s one of my fav’s, along with “susurrations.” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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