COLUMN: How a misguided Shakespeare fan caused the Fraser Valley’s starling troubles

Propane cannons and crop failures can be traced back to a single line by the world’s most famous poet

The words of Shakespeare reverberate today.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

A house shakes from the sound of a propane cannon. A neighbour shakes his fist.

Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

A drone’s rotors whirl as the device spins through the air over a farmer’s field.

Groooooaaaan.

A berry grower surveys his losses and considers the financial toll.

“All in favour? Motion passes.”

A microphone hums as council approves a study into how to deal with the starlings that plague the fields of Abbotsford berry growers.

All this because the greatest writer of all time thought it would be amusing to have one of his characters ruminate about training a bird to annoy a rival.

Of course, you can’t really lay the blame for a continent-wide plague of starlings on Shakespeare.

All he did was write a play called Henry IV, Part 1, about Henry Percy’s rebellion against the King in which Percy says: “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”

(Percy, here, is speculating about ways in which he might annoy the King. The King hates Mortimer, so training a starling to say the guy’s name over and over again would be amusing to Percy.)

Anyway, Shakespeare didn’t actually release a plague of starlings upon North America, so you probably shouldn’t actually blame him for all the trouble starlings caused the people of Abbotsford. Shakespeare, after all, couldn’t have imagined that a single word in one of his many plays would inspire a guy who, centuries later, would release a plague of starlings upon North America.

It’s Eugene Schiefflin who you definitely can blame for the starling problem.

(I learned of this through a fantastic podcast named the Memory Palace.)

It was Schiefflin who loved Shakespeare so much that he decided, in the late 1880s, that he would try to release birds from each species mentioned in the bard’s plays. In March1890, Schiefflin, a rich guy who lived in New York, had his servants carry a bunch of cages containing starlings into the middle of Central Park. They opened the cages and let the birds loose.

Most of the Shakespeare species that Schiefflin had released in the past had just died. Thankfully. The starlings did not. Individually, the starlings might be weak little birds, but as a group, they possess Terminator levels of destruction. They descended on fields and destroyed crops. They got sucked into the engine of a jet and caused it to crash, killing dozens. They spread to Alaska. They spread to Guatemala.

But maybe blaming Schiefflin for all that is harsh.

Schiefflin probably couldn’t foresee the consequences of his actions anymore than Shakespeare could have. He lived at the very end of an era in which it was cool at the time to introduce new species to new environments. And nobody seems to have gone to much trouble to stop Schiefflin. It’s unclear if anyone even suggested that releasing his birds into the North American air was a bad idea.

Just a decade later, the U.S. government introduced rules banning the importation of many foreign animals. Those rules introduced in 1900 couldn’t scoop those starlings out of the air, and couldn’t undo the consequences of Schiefflin’s starlings. And we live with them today.

It’s almost a relief, in a way, to know this story – and know the results – and not actually be really, really mad at Schiefflin. At least he didn’t know better, we can think. Nobody warned him that our environment couldn’t handle five dozen starlings. Nobody seems to have suggested the release of starlings into our atmosphere be regulated yet.

Tyler Olsen is a reporter at The Abbotsford News.

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