Search This Blog

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Throwback Thursday: Mr. Eugene Schieffelin (He was for the birds, especially starlings.)

The photograph atop today's entry was taken during this past Tuesday's nor'Easter; a "bombogenesis," winter storm named STELLA. It's a picture featuring a representative of one of the dozens upon dozens of dozens of European starlings who spent the entire day in my rooftop garden, eating and squawking (not sedate like the one seen here) while the blizzard raged on (as evidenced in the following images).

This bird type that I'm speaking of is a member of the Sturnus vulgaris family whom are also known by the common name of European starling. Evidently this variety of bird was brought to NYC from England by Eugene Schieffelin in March of 1890, and he subsequently released them in Central Park

I first learned of Eugene Schieffelin's antics in March of 2014 and wrote about the news-worthy topic on TLLG's Facebook Page. I also wrote about it on hometalk, with a follow-up entry here on Blogger

Now, in preparation for today's throwback Thursday post, I've read other interesting information re Eugene Schieffelin's "responsibility" in bringing starlings across the pond, as well as interesting facts re this ubiquitous bird type, all of which I'm sharing in this entry.

In an article (that was published in 2000) titled, A Day of Starling Revelations, John Pancake writes, "March 16 should be a time of quiet admiration for America's least loved bird. In truth, the starling is despised because it succeeded, because it expanded into every nook and cranny of North America."

Pancake goes on to explain, "The birds of Shakespeare were Schieffelin's passion... He imported bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales and skylarks. They're gone. But more than 200,000,000 starlings pepper the skies of North America.

"The starling's knack for exploiting, adapting to and, in some cases, outwitting Homo sapiens is one key to the bird's ubiquity. The starling's range now stretches from the Arctic to New Zealand, and includes 30 percent of the Earth's land surface.

"Christopher Feare, the British ornithologist who wrote the book on the starling ("The Starling," 1984), likens Sturnus vulgaris to that astonishingly resourceful creature the used-car salesman.

"It's tough, opportunistic, capable of taking advantage of almost any situation. It wears a shiny, black coat and looks to human eyes as if it walks with a New Jersey swagger. While it's true that Mozart wrote music based on the starling's whistle, if starlings went to Tower Records they would more likely be over by the Springsteen bin.

"The starlings--officially they're called "European starlings"--began to breed almost immediately after being released in Central Park. The first recorded nest was under the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History, a bastion of American ornithology."

And in this article, Pancake also states the following, "The starling population soon engulfed the continent like an amoeba. It is not unusual for a species to spread unchecked on an island or in an isolated region. A takeover on a continental scale is uncommon. But turn-of-the-century America was ripe for the starling. The bird is adapted for prairies and open fields. If it had shown up when North America was still heavily forested, who knows whether it would have flourished? But man had cleared much of North America by 1890, so it was prime starling habitat.

"... A starling can make a meal out of a tremendous variety of foods, ranging from cultivated cherries to caterpillars, bugs and grasshoppers to the occasional discarded Whopper. Although starlings feed primarily on the ground, they can shift gears. Sometimes they even hawk flying insects on the wing like a phoebe or purple martin.

"Some biologists believe that one secret of the starling's success is a counterintuitive adaptation in the musculature of its beak. Most songbirds' beaks are set up to close down on food. But the muscles attached to the starling's bill also allow the bird to open with considerable force. This means the starling can pry apart matted grass, loose soil or leaf litter to uncover grubs, insect eggs and other morsels unavailable to many other birds...

"... The starling's skull is particularly pinched and narrow in the front so that when the beak is open, the starling's eyes, which are normally on the side of the head, shift forward and the bird has a good view of what it has pried apart.

"Starlings will nest in almost any kind of cavity--hollow trees, cornices, bell towers, traffic lights, Kmart signs, fence posts, old motors, haystacks, kingfisher burrows, swallow holes, bluebird boxes.

"They are particularly fond of woodpecker holes. Ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent said they sometimes watch a flicker excavating a hole and then, when it is the proper size and depth, drive the larger bird away and take over.

"U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Trapp has seen them nest in the dryer vents from laundry rooms in the apartment building across from his office in Arlington. Not long ago, a workman spent all day covering the vents. It took the starlings only a week to get around the new baffles."

As for the man associated with bringing European starlings across the pond, here's what John Pancake writes:

"Despite his profound influence on the bird life of North America, much about Eugene Schieffelin (pronounced CHEF-lun) has been lost. He was born in 1827 into a prosperous New York family.

"Words like 'black sheep' come up when you talk to members of the Schieffelin family about Eugene today... But the family is a little foggy on where he is buried and whether a picture of him still exists. Though he was connected to the family pharmaceutical business, a spokesman for Schieffelin & Somerset Co., now a wine and spirits importer, says Eugene apparently did not play a major role there. His obituaries (he was written up in the Times, the Evening Post and the Tribune) mention that he was something of an artist. Portraits, apparently. He was well connected, a member of the Union Club, the city's oldest men's club.

"He occasionally dropped by the bird department of the American Museum of Natural History (where he came to be regarded as a nice, but misguided man) to chat about birds. He was a trustee of the New York Zoological Society and proudly presented the Bronx Zoo with a 'starling roost' in 1903. It's not clear what the starling roost was or what the zoo did with it.

"According to the New York Genealogical Society, to which he belonged, Eugene was married to a Catherine Hall, but the society has no record of any offspring. He died, after a stroke, in Newport, R.I., on Aug. 14, 1906, at age 80.

"He began his Shakespearean quest in 1860, when he brought English sparrows to New York City. Shakespeare may not have been the only thing behind it; according to one report, he thought they might help control caterpillars.

"Though his motives may have been mixed when it came to sparrows, historians and the Schieffelin family agree that Shakespeare was the catalyst for his big success in 1890 when he brought over a load of starlings from England.

"There is some disagreement about the exact date of the first release, but Joe Di Costanzo, president of the New York Linnean Society and an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, says his records indicate that March 16 was the day."

And so, for me, March 16th, it is for paying homage to the date in which Eugene Schieffelin brought these now ubiquitous birds across the pond. I will concede that they seem to be everywhere in NYC's parks as well as streets; and unfortunately they discovered my rooftop garden a few years ago. 

I say, unfortunately, because I am afraid their presence has discouraged other bid types who used to frequent here (including American robins, blue-jays, common grackles, dark-eyed juncoes, downy woodpeckers, house finches, Northern cardinals, Northern mockingbirds, and mourning doves), from coming as often as they had done in the past. Although during STELLA, a mourning dove did break bread with the starlings as seen in the following picture,

which is an image I featured in my "coverage" (a blog post) of STELLA's impact on the wild birds who visit my garden.

The presence of starlings does not intimidate pigeons (as you might surmise from the image below),

nor does it discourage house sparrows from coming. They may be small, but they are resilient, and when they see starlings here, they stick to their own interests, such as my bird feeder that looks like a house from the Monopoly Board Game; as in the next picture;

which was also included in my STELLA coverage on this blog.

And while it's true the American Robin bird variety doesn't come around as often when starlings are present, one did brave the elements and the presence of starlings in order to nosh here; 

after all, a bird has gotta eat!

Before I conclude this entry dedicated to the anniversary of Eugene Schieffelin's releasing starlings in Central Park, please allow me, to share a few facts re this bird type as stated in John Pancake's article:

"... it was the starling's remarkable vocal abilities that secured it a place in Henry IV and its ticket (from Eugene Schieffelin to come) across the Atlantic.

"Starlings produce a wide variety of whistles, cackles, rattles, clicks, squeals, chuckles and cries. Some are characteristic of the species--the most familiar sounds a bit like the name the Dutch give the bird, spreeuw. But singing males also improvise, incorporating sounds of nearby birds, mammals and even machinery into their songs.

"They have been kept as pets for 2,500 years, and their ability to imitate human speech was recorded in ancient times. And that is exactly what the fictional character Hotspur is talking about in his tirade in "Henry IV." Hotspur badgers the king to ransom Mortimer, Hotspur's brother-in-law. When the king tells Hotspur never to mention Mortimer again, the volatile soldier hits on the notion of having a trained bird nag the king for him.

"He never follows through on the plan and is eventually killed by Prince Hal, but the bird he unleashed on America lives on.... Sturnus vulgaris, a member of the mynah family, was introduced to America late in the 19th century. Since then, it has overwhelmed most of the continent.... The starling caught the eye of not only Shakespeare but also Aristotle, Pliny and Tennyson. Mozart had a pet starling, and one of the themes of his piano concerto in G is based on the bird's whistle."

I confess that like Shakespeare, Aristotle, Pliny, Tennyson, and Mozart has caught my eye as evidenced in the following photographs of this bird type taken yesterday (which  was the day after STELA's wrath),

as well as a few pictures from the past seven days,

and a few photo-ops of them from 2016,

will conclude this posting.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.