Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 468:
STARLINGS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 468.

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 work.

(Theme music)


Gup, T., 100 Years of the Starling. New York Times, Saturday, September 1, 1990, p. 15.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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