Subject: Unintended consequences – Schieffelin’s Bardolatry
Event: Eugene Schieffelin releases 60 starlings in New York’s Central Park, 1890
Nay, 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 –Henry IV, Part I, Act I, Scene iii
Normally quoting Shakespeare is a pretty harmless activity. It might delight some, annoy others; nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how such an activity might lead to widespread problems. One exception to this case took place on this day in 1890. Eugene Schieffelin, a Shakespeare fan and an ornithologist, who was inspired by the Bard, decided to introduce the starling to North America. With the support of the American Acclimatization Society, a group dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna into North America, Schieffelin released 60 starlings into New York City’s Central Park on Thursday, March 6, 1890 (1).
Today, the United States is home to an estimated 200 million European starlings, and many wish that Schieffelin would have thought more carefully about the unintended consequences of his actions on that day in 1890.
Starlings can be such a nuisance that they are one of the few species unprotected by law; their nests, eggs, young and/or adults may be removed or destroyed at any time. In the field of aviation, starlings are known as “feathered bullets” because their dense bodies and tendency to fly in flocks pose a real danger near airports. They’re also disliked by the agricultural industry where they damage fruit crops and where they steal the grain being fed to cows. According to scientists, the increase in the non-native population of starlings correlates with the decline in native species (2).
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: Why did Eugene Schieffelin release 60 starlings, and what were the unintended consequences of this action?
Challenge – Unintended Benefits: As Scheffelin’s starlings show us, our actions sometimes result in negative unintended consequences. Sometimes, however, our actions can result in positive unintended consequences — also known as serendipity. Do some research on the role of serendipity in discovery and invention, such as when Percey Spencer realized that emissions from the radar equipment he was working with had melted a chocolate bar in his pocket. For Spencer, serendipity led to a patent filed on October 8, 1945, for the Radarange — what we now know as the microwave oven.
ALSO ON THIS DAY:
-March 6, 1475: Today is the birthday of Michelangelo, who said, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.”
-March 6, 1947: Today is the birthday Dick Fosbury. He won the Gold Medal in the high jump at the 1972 Olympics, but he is best known for the Fosbury Flop, his then unorthodox, status-quo-busting method of flinging himself backward over the bar. Reflecting on his innovative thinking, he said the following:
I adapted an antiquated style and modernized it to something that was efficient. I didn’t know anyone else in the world would be able to use it and I never imagined it would revolutionize the event.
1-Zielinski, Sarah. “The Invasive Species We Can Blame On Shakespeare.” Smithsonian Magazine 4 Oct. 2011.
2-O’Brien. “The birds of Shakespeare cause US trouble.” BBC News 24 April 2014.