Eugene Schieffelin was an ambitious and eccentric man in late 19th-century America, and that led to him developing some unique hopes and dreams. Case in point: Schieffelin wanted to be known as the man who brought Shakespeare’s birds to America, but he’s mostly known as the source of European starlings in America, and that’s not an overly positive moniker. Starlings are one of the worst and most destructive invasive species in North America, and their origins can be traced back to one Shakespeare superfan who had a crazy idea about literary birds.
How did European starlings become so common? Like most invasive species, starlings possess certain traits and advantages that allow them to outcompete native species and dominate ecosystems. In short, starlings are aggressive and extremely proficient at eating and breeding, enabling them to quickly take over the North American continent.
When Schieffelin released his first batch of starlings into Central Park in 1890, he had no inkling of the massively destructive force he had just unleashed.
- Photo: Stephen March / Amazon
'Twas A Time Of Shakespearemania
William Shakespeare is likely the most well-known writer in English-language history, but his worldwide fame didn't really take off until the 19th century. Throughout that century, the English world experienced a sort of Shakespearemania, described as a “global popular culture” by Stephen Marche, author of How Shakespeare Changed Everything.
This literary obsession was referred to as the “deification” of Shakespeare – it elevated him to a god-like status – and it's a major part of why Shakespeare is so revered to this day. America was full of Shakespeare nuts in the mid- to late 19th century, and it was in this environment that a truly insane act of fandom was plotted.
The American Acclimatization Society, Another 19th-Century Phenomenon, Was Dedicated To Destroying Ecosystems
The American Acclimatization Society was founded in New York City in 1871, and their non-threatening name belies their destructive desires. The group was intent on bringing European species of plants and animals to North America, unaware of the potential devastation that could be wrought by invasive species. The society thought that certain animals would bring both economic and cultural benefits, but the negatives would far outweigh the positives.
The marriage of this society's intentions and Shakespeare – in the hands of Schieffelin – would prove to be a deadly combination.
Eugene Schieffelin Was The Perfect Storm Of Shakespeare Superfandom And Invasive Species Enthusiast
Eugene Schieffelin was a native New Yorker, born there on January 29, 1827. He came of age in the century of Shakespearemania, and he became a major aficionado of the Bard. He also jointed the American Acclimatization Society, founded in his hometown, dedicating himself to the mission of introducing European flora and fauna to the United States.
Because of these two affiliations, Schieffelin may very well have been the only person in the world whose obsessions could overlap in the crazy plan that resulted in the European starling's reign of terror in North America.
Schieffelin Wanted To Introduce Every Bird Mentioned By Shakespeare To North America – That's Over 600 Avian Species
At the age of 63, Schieffelin decided he wanted a legacy that combined his love of William Shakespeare with his hobby of releasing invasive species into the wild. Schieffelin hatched a plan to introduce every species of bird ever mentioned in one of Shakespeare’s plays to North America, in an effort to class up the joint and make for more faithful adaptations of his works on American soil.
The list included around 600 types of birds, including skylarks, nightingales, song thrushes, and, most notably, European starlings. For all the trouble the starlings have caused, Shakespeare only ever referred to them in a single line from Henry IV.
Act 1, Scene 3 : “Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak; Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him.”