Nature 2021 December

‘Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak’

I read an interesting story recently about the exploits of a citizen from New York during the 19th Century. Eugene Schieffelin was a member of the American Acclimatization Society. This Society had been formed in 1871 with the sole purpose of introducing European plants and animals into the United States – and foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting.

This was not a new idea, as a society with the same purpose had already been established in 1854 in Paris to introduce foreign breeds of animals for meat and other uses such as pest control. In the last few years before Darwin published his account of how natural selection was the prime force behind the origin of all species, the French were still patriotically wedded to Lamarckism. In this period the New York society was just one of many that had been formed in other countries. Soon after the US society had been formed species such as European robins, skylarks, various tits and finches and even pheasants had been released. All were seen as enhancing the beauty of the American countryside!

Back to our ‘hero’ Eugene, who was a German national. His ambition was not just the misplaced merit of releasing European species, but a wholly more culturally superior mission of releasing all the birds that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings. Depending on how one tots them up there are at least 59 varieties of birds mentioned in the Bard’s plays and poems. Eugene was apparently responsible for attempts to release up to 40 of these.

Though several incomplete lists had been produced, the earliest recorded source for a complete compendium of Shakespeare’s birds I could find was published in 1871 and might indeed have been the same reference that Eugene used as part of his misguided releases. James Harting, an ornithologist, took at least ten years to compile his reference work which identifies the bird species but also shows how often and in which of Shakespeare’s works each bird is mentioned. But birds are not the only fauna that Shakespeare impresses with his knowledge of wildlife.

From an earlier analysis, maybe around 1780, Alexander Pope studied in detail the context and descriptions and analogies Shakespeare had used. He concluded that Shakespeare was not just a practised exponent of the English language but was an experienced observer of, and writer on, the natural world. In Pope’s time, country pursuits were very much in fashion and a ‘country gentleman’ would have been familiar with them all. There are numerous mentions of shooting, hawking, falconry, fowling, deer hunting with hounds and deer stalking using a crossbow. In most cases the reference to the pastime or the practices is a device, by way of analogy or metaphor, employed to describe what is happening or what is in the mind of a character.

To pick just one reference to hunting above many others is not easy. Perhaps one of the most familiar lines in all of Shakespeare’s works is that which makes use of hare coursing to be found in Henry V:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
straining upon the start.

In contrast to all those references to country pursuits, the paucity of references to fish suggests angling was one pursuit he was not interested in and therefore was unfamiliar with its habits, practices and language. According to James Harting, possibly the best of a limited menu on offer was in Twelfth Night when Maria exclaims, on the appearance of Malvolio:

Here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling!

Amongst the birds included in Shakespeare’s writings I spotted around 30 plus that can be seen or have been recorded frequently in this part of The Chilterns. They are kite, buzzard, kestrel, sparrowhawk, owl, crow, rook, jackdaw, magpie, jay, nightingale, lark, bunting, thrush, robin, wren, sparrow, dunnock, cuckoo and wagtail; plus the domesticated birds peacock, turkey, pigeon, dove, goose, pheasant, partridge and duck.

There were also some more exotic species. For example, parrots and ostriches were becoming a familiar sight in Tudor England. I guess with parakeets cropping up from time-to-time parrots could be squeezed into our local list! Another I have squeezed in is the pelican, as there used to be one that hung out at Tring Reservoirs – possibly an escapee from Whipsnade Zoo!

A final word on Eugene. One of the bird varieties he released, the starling, has resulted in him receiving much of the opprobrium in American scientific literature because of the devastating effect of their release on the ecology of other birds, their invertebrate prey, agriculture and even downing aeroplanes. Of the 40 released it is thought around 20 survived. However, today there are estimated to be over 200 million starlings in North America. Few of the other species released by Eugene survived in great numbers, perhaps with the exception of sparrows. Eugene was not the first or the last person to release starlings, but all the angst has rested on his shoulders.

This lesson has unfortunately not been learned by others who have released birds, other animals and species of flora into other countries or locations for misinformed intentions. Just to name a few local ones: by aristocrats (glis glis, muntjac and Wallaby), by Victorians (grey squirrel, Himalayan balsam, giant hogweed and Japanese knotweed), by fur trade/animal extremists (American mink), by film industry or rock stars (parakeet), by pet shops (goldfish and content of fish tanks, like pondweeds and New Zealand pigmy weed), by food farming/restaurants (signal or American crayfish).

Last Word – with this written during COP26 it is impossible to ignore the impact of global warming on the future introduction of new species from other parts of the world or the migration across the UK due to progressive changes in the climate. The latest arrival I have only just read about is the Asian hornet, which sounds a bit scary!

* Footnote – as to the quote in the heading, this is the only reference to starlings in Shakespeare’s Works and comes from Henry IV, Part I. It is another example of Shakespeare’s knowledge of the classics. In this case it is Ancient Greek and he is referring to Pliny, who mentions that starlings were trained to utter both Latin and Greek for the amusement of the young Caesars.

Chris Brown
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