THE BEGINNING

Between 1890 and 1891, Eugene Schieffelin introduced approximately 60 pairs of European starlings into New York City 's Central Park . Schieffelin was a founding member of the New York chapter of the Acclimation Society of North America whose goal was to introduce non-native species that they deemed culturally or environmentally beneficial into new environments. It is generally believed that Schieffelin felt it was his calling to introduce all the birds referenced in the works of Shakespeare into North America . His attempts to introduce bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks were unsuccessful. Schieffelin's introduction of the starling, however, enabled a wildly successful colonization. His action, though essentially cultural in origin, has become one of the most spectacular environmental disruptions ever perpetrated by an individual. In less than 100 years the European starling spread across the continent, from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico . The initial population of approximately 120 birds has increased to more than 200 million. Today the starling has become the most common bird in North America . (Due to other introduction campaigns in Australia and South Africa , starlings are now one of the most common birds on the entire planet, with an estimated global population of over 600 million.)

The introduction and westward expansion of starlings coincided with the decline and extinction of two of the continent's most numerous native bird species. The passenger pigeon, whose pre-18th century population has been estimated between 3 and 5 billion, and the Carolina parakeet, whose population once numbered in the millions, were both completely wiped out by the early 20th century. There is no concrete evidence that the loss of these native birds had any effect on the speedy colonization by the starling.

Another hypothesis for the starling's success relies on the fact that at the end of the 19th century much of the great eastern forest had been cut down. The lack of this natural barrier left the west open to this bird, which thrives in open fields and pastures.

The starling, along with other introduced and invasive species, is contributing to the problem of global environmental homogenization. Scientists Edward O. Wilson and Jeffery McNeely foresee a future where the world has lost much of its biodiversity and is filled with a relatively small number of aggressive and adaptable plants and animals. Wilson and McNeely state that this lack of diversity comes at the expense of the overall health of the global ecosystem.

TEACH THE STARLINGS

A little known fact about the European starling is that it has the ability to mimic human speech. Based on this fact, I began a project to teach European starlings to say the name of the man who introduced them into North America : "Schieffelin." My collaborators and I, by exploiting the starling's mimicry ability, intend to raise awareness about the potentially devastating environmental impact of misdirected human intervention, using the specific story of the European starling as a prime example. The starling will eventually become a living auditory advertisement for its own role in North American environmental history.

HOW TO TEACH STARLINGS THEIR NEW CALL

The first and most simple strategy is to find a starling and shout "Schieffelin" to it. Research by West and King has shown that starlings have the ability to learn a word or phrase after hearing it only once. To increase the success rate, I recommend repeating "Schieffelin" as many times as possible to an individual or group of starlings.

The second strategy is to set up feeding stations rigged with touch-triggered audio devices. The devices will not only play the sound "Schieffelin" repeatedly during feeding but will cause the birds to associate the word with food, thereby increasing the likelihood that the starlings will learn to say it.

The next strategy is two-fold. First, nest boxes can be constructed which are rigged with motion-triggered audio devices (I have found that it is more likely to get a resident if you wait to turn on the audio until the eggs are laid). When a starling enters or exits the nest box, the audio will play. I have also found naturally occurring nest sites which I have rigged with these same motion-triggered audio devices. With this strategy, not only is the adult bird hearing the word "Schieffelin" repeatedly, but the nestlings will learn to associate the word with the arrival of the attending parent.

The final strategy is to capture one or more fledgling starlings and raise them in cages for a relatively brief period of time. During their time in captivity they should be repeatedly exposed to the name "Schieffelin." The exposure should always be accompanied by positive reinforcement like food rewards or praise. Once it is clear that the starlings have learned to say "Schieffelin," they should be released back into the wild population. Because you will be re-introducing the birds to the wild, it's important not to acclimate them to life with humans. This can be achieved by constructing as large as possible outdoor aviaries for the captive starlings to live in. Research by West and King has shown that starlings learn best from direct interaction with a human, this will likely be the most successful strategy. (If you choose to follow this strategy please provide adequate housing, food, and clean water. Try to make the starling as comfortable as possible. Information about caring for a captive starling can be found at: www.starlingtalk.com )

Eventually, the starlings themselves will begin to carry the name "Schieffelin" through their North American population. Research by West and King has shown that starlings can learn sounds from one another. With the teaching of just a few "Schieffelin" can spread, as a virus would, through a population. Obviously, the more individuals and different locations that can be affected, the more quickly the behavior will spread.

I'm asking for volunteers, both locally and nationally, to help teach the starlings to say "Schieffelin." By following any or all of the strategies outlined on this website you can help change the starling from an unwanted invader to a productive environmental teaching tool.

teach the starlings