Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.
If you live in North America and you love the European Starling, most folks say you can credit Eugene Shieffelin. If you hate the European Starling, they say you can blame the same guy. It's Shieffelin who is largely credited with introducing 60 starlings to New York City's Central Park in the year 1890 and another 40 in 1891. As we all know, they thrived. And thrived. Today, they number around 200 million in North America, with a range all across the continent, and are considered one of the most invasive species on the planet. So if you love them, you can thank Mr. Shieffelin for the huge flocks of noisy, speckled black birds.
Shieffelin didn't act alone, however. He belonged to the American Acclimatization Society, an organization founded in New York City in 1871 whose goal was to introduce to North America useful species from other countries. In retrospect, we 21st-century types think "useful" was defined rather loosely. After all, the starling isn't especially useful—unless, as is rumored about Shieffelin, you have such a thing for the birds of Shakespeare that you want them all to live right near you. (There actually is not much evidence for this popular story.)
So how did the American Acclimatization Society come to be? Well, for that we can blame the Société zoologique d'acclimatation, founded in Paris in 1854 by naturalist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. He encouraged the French government to import and breed species that would help feed France and control pests. He encouraged other countries to start similar chapters.
By 1877, the American Acclimatization Society was going strong, and Shieffelin, a drug manufacturer from the Bronx, was its chairman. We imagine he must have thought, "How pretty those starlings are! How intelligent and entertaining! What harm could they do?" What harm indeed! They have crowded out countless native North American bird species, interfered with agriculture, and even been a primary cause of airplane bird strikes.
Some bad ideas that seem fun at the time are pretty harmless, such as shaving half your beard or adding extra hot pepper to your chili. But importing non-native species? Not harmless. So let's enjoy European Starlings, but let's also try to educate humankind about invasive species so we don't make such mistakes in the future. The fault? Quite simply, it's ours.