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 have you ever heard of a species being introduce because of its prevalence in the works of William Shakespeare?

This is the folklore behind the introduction of 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 in an attempt to introduce all bird species mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to North America. Since then, the bird has spread across the United States, and as some have claimed, harms native species by outcompeting them for resources.

This common narrative, however, has come into question. In 2021, Duke University researchers put out a paper refuting much of the story, stating that "Schieffelin's role in the starling’s success has been overstated and his obsession with Shakespeare is entirely fabricated." The damages that the bird has caused as a non-native, according to the paper, "have been inflated in a similar fashion."

Regardless of how exactly it got here, the European starling is currently one of North America's most common song birds and can be found all throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Whether or not it is a true invasive species is up for debate—but the fact of the matter is that here in the Bay we have much more concerning non-native species to worry about.

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!



John MacNeill Miller

The story that starlings were brought to the U.S. by a Shakespeare fanatic is a fascinating one...but it's almost certainly not true! The history behind the mistaken Shakespeare link is almost as fascinating as the Shakespeare story itself, though.

I spent years researching this with a student, and we published our findings in 2021. You can read that article here:

The New York Times followed up on our findings with their own exploration of the complicated place of starlings in the U.S., which is available here:

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