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Is William Shakespeare to Blame for Any of America’s Invasive Species?

Updated May 16, 2024
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According to Hamlet, there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, but there is no such connection between William Shakespeare and starlings in America. For centuries, a myth has persisted that one of the Bard's many devotees made a point of bringing to the United States every fowl mentioned in the Shakespearean canon. And while it might be great to be credited with the cardinal or hailed for the hawk, no one wants to be shamed for the European starling, which has long been considered an invasive species that torments other birds and crops alike.

According to the story, amateur ornithologist and Shakespeare fan Eugene Schieffelin released 100 imported starlings in New York City's Central Park in 1890. From there, their numbers swelled to some 150 million by the late 20th century.

It took an assistant professor and a student from Pennsylvania's Allegheny College to pluck out the truth of the legend - and the truth is that the Shakespeare connection is entirely fictional. Furthermore, Schieffelin was far from the only person to release starlings to North America.

After extensive research, John MacNeill Miller and Lauren Fugate found that the Shakespeare myth didn't crop up until the 1940s. They also believe that there's little reason for such hatred of the birds. "The hatred toward starlings seems to be rooted in longstanding cultural prejudices rather than in actual facts about them," Miller said. "I wish I could say we all approach starlings more neutrally and evenhandedly now. Unfortunately, those older attitudes and language are still in circulation today, often in supposedly scientific discussions of starlings as examples of non-native, ‘invasive’ species.'"

Startling starlings:

  • A large flock of starlings is known as a "murmuration."

  • Starling species range in size from the Abbott's starling, at 1.2 ounces (34 g), to the Nias hill myna, at 14 ounces (400 g).

  • In some city areas and woodlands, gatherings of starlings reach into the millions of individual birds.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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