Two starlings sits at the edge of the land in a bit of water.
Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

Non-native species have made it to North America by latching on to cargo ships, escaping from zoos and burrowing into transported trees. But only one critter was introduced because of its prevalence in the works of William Shakespeare. And that’s the European starling.

As legend has it, in 1890 a bird-lover and Shakespeare enthusiast named Eugene Schieffelin released 60 European starlings into New York City. His plan was to introduce all bird species mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to North America, and had tried but failed with nightingales, skylarks and other common characters. The scheme wasn’t totally without merit; Schieffelin was a member of the American Acclimatization Society, a group that believed introducing certain foreign species to the U.S. would benefit the ecosystem.

While his attempts with other birds failed, the European starlings miraculously survived a harsh New York City winter and began reproducing. Today, they are one of North America’s most common songbirds!

However, the success of the critter has not come without collateral damage. European starlings are intelligent birds with strong foraging abilities, but they are also aggressive toward other species, and will bully bluebirds, flickers and woodpeckers out of their nests. Because of this behavior, European starlings are considered an official invasive species.

Non-native species are considered invasive when they have few natural predators and can therefore outcompete native species for resources and cause damage to the ecosystem. Here in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we have several invasive species, and they’re of much more concern than the European starling.

Zebra mussels, which were first spotted in the Chesapeake watershed in 2022, consume large quantities of plankton, which is an important food source for many native species.

Blue catfish, which were intentionally introduced to the James, Rappahannock and York rivers in the 1970s and 1980s as a recreational catch, now dominate Chesapeake waters by hogging forage food and eating blue crabs.

Nutria, which were introduced to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in 1943 to establish an experimental fur station, cause significant damage to marshland, digging plants out by their roots to feed and creating “eat outs” that are susceptible to erosion. This critter still plagues parts of the watershed, but is no longer found in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge after nearly 20 years of wildlife management.

While the European starling is not nearly as disruptive as these critters, its introduction to North America is a reminder of the ways in which wildlife management can go wrong. At the Chesapeake Bay Program, restoration and conservation is guided by the best available science and research, so that our efforts to improve conditions for wildlife and humans does not have adverse effects.

Do you have any experience with European starlings or other invasive species? Let us know in the comments below!

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