Today, we face a plague of songbirds. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Shakespeare's plays are full
of references to birds. In 1890 a drug manufacturer
named Eugene Scheiffelin decided that New York
should be home to all Shakespeare's songbirds. He
brought thrushes and skylarks from England and
released them into American skies. They failed to
fight their way into our ecology.
But 1990 and 1991 mark the centennial of his third
experiment. In 1890 he released 60 starlings into
Central Park. A year later he released 40 more.
This time his romantic gesture was a success. And
what a success it was!
Times correspondent Ted Gup tells what
happened next. For six years the starlings stayed
in Manhattan. New Yorkers were delighted when they
showed up in the eaves of the Museum of Natural
History. Then they flew out into America. They
reached the Mississippi River by 1928, and
California by 1942.
Starlings have powerful Darwinian staying power.
Today they're at home in both Alaska and Florida.
They reproduce with alarming speed. They drive off
bluebirds and woodpeckers.
They also form flocks of as many as a million
hungry birds. A flock will eat 20 tons of potatoes
and foul what they leave behind. They spread
histoplasmosis and other diseases.
In 1960 a Lockheed Electra stirred up 10,000
starlings as it left Boston's airport. The plane
went straight into the flock. Its engines strangled
on starlings and 62 people died.
Attempts to fight the infestation show the same
off-the-wall imagination that brought starlings
here in the first place. In 1948 Washington, D.C.,
tried to run them off with artificial owls.
Starlings were too smart for that. When engineers
strung electric wires around the Capitol columns,
the birds just moved next door. We've tried
broadcasting the starlings' alarm call. We've used
chemicals, cobalt-60, and even Roman candles. In
1931 the Department of Agriculture even put out a
recipe for starling pie.
Nothing has worked. The starling has found a home
in America that's much to his liking. And we're
left with a message we should be taking to heart by
now. It is that we're part of earth's equations.
Our actions are always irreversible. Stewardship
for the earth means looking much further down the
line at the results of our actions.
A century ago, such a small thing as a romantic
dream about Shakespeare's world in Central Park
brought us this plague. How much more do we do when
we burn up underpriced oil, overspray bugs, and
destroy whole species! The starling story is just
one more reminder of the fragility of our planet.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds