Starlings. You should blame him for starlings. Folklore has it that Schieffelin introduced the birds, along with dozens of other non-native species, to bring to the United States all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare plays. The motivation may be apocryphal, but Schieffelin and others did import about a hundred pare in 1890 and 1891 to New York City’s Central Park.
It wasn’t uncommon at that time for well-meaning ornithologists to release birds they enjoyed into this new land. They had no concept of invasive species.
The first mention of starlings in the Idaho Statesman was on August 2, 1893: “Many persons have wondered why the starling got its name, which comes from an old word, meaning to look fixedly or to stare, and certainly its eyes are sharp and quick to see danger, so that it is not easily shot in the fields.”
This was clearly written during a tragic shortage of periods at the typesetting table.
The next mention of the bird in the Statesman was in 1909. The story, headlined An Unwelcome Guest, reported that “Uncle Sam” had imported a few pair of starlings to Central Park to keep insects away from fruit crops. Ironically, starlings liked the fruit as well as the insects did. The birds were becoming more common in the East than native birds. The story included another stab at the etymology of the name, attributing it to the starlike yellow spots on the bird’s dark plumage.
Beginning in 1911, the word starling in the Statesman referred most often to the Starling Hotel at 716 ½ Main Street in Boise. It was a magnet for police calls.
In 1947, the Statesman reported on the starling problem in Washington, DC. “… any pedestrian who happens to stroll beneath these trees emerges as spotted as a leopard.” Citizens debated the best way to take care of the birds. One suggested bringing in owls to eat or scare the starlings. “But what if the owl becomes an equally big menace?” the reporter asked. All right, replied the citizen. Bring in eagles to eat the owls. The article ended with the line, “Nobody has figured out yet what to do about the eagles.”
Then, in 1948, the inevitable happened. The Statesman headline read, Caldwell Reports English Starling Moving on Idaho. “Dal Whiffin of Caldwell reported Wednesday he observed a flock of English Starlings in Caldwell. This is believed to be the first report of the birds in Idaho.
“Prof. Harold Tucker of the College of Idaho confirmed Whiffin’s identification of the birds.
“Ornithologists report the starling is anti-social towards other birds and drives them from their nesting areas. The starlings particularly like to drive bluebirds away. The bluebird is the Idaho state bird.”
This propensity of starlings is one of the reasons Al Larson started the bluebird box program in Idaho.
Starlings are one of the most successful birds on the planet. They compete with native birds for nest sites and food. Their murmuration, while beautiful, confuses predators that might otherwise keep their numbers in control. That same murmuration can be a hazard to airplanes.
One other issue with this invasive species is their penchant for spreading weed seeds, particularly those of another invasive species, the Russian Olive.
Agriculturalists hate them. Studies have shown the birds can eat up to 630 pounds of cattle feed every hour.
Starlings are one of only four birds in Idaho that are not protected. The other three are English sparrows, Eurasian-collared doves, and feral pigeons.
We would have all been better off if those 19th century ornithologists had spent their time in Central Park reading sonnets.