Shakespeare's Starling

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20190701

How did Shakespeare's single starling take down a passenger plane and wreak environmental havoc across America?

There are hundreds of references to birds in Shakespeare's work, some many times over. But the starling is only mentioned once - in Henry IV Part 1 - and yet this speckled bird is now one of the most hated birds in the US. Multi award-winning radio producer Zoë Comyns explores how one man's Shakespeare-inspired folly continues to have a dire ecological impact more than a century later.

Eugene Schieffelin - Bronx resident, drug manufacturer and theatre aficionado - was a member of a group called the American Acclimatization Society. This society wanted to introduce European species into the United States. In March 1890, Schieffelin did just that - releasing sixty starlings in New York's Central Park. A year later he released forty more.

From those releases there are now almost 200 million starlings in North America today and they are causing devastation to indigenous habitats and farmers' crops. In 1962, a flock got caught in a plane's engine, bringing it down and killing 62 people, and every year almost $1 billion of crop damage is done by this invasive species.

Zoë Comyns explores the legacy of that single starling, Schieffelin's ill-fated deed and the serious and yet at times humorous attempts to eradicate the bird over the past one hundred years. It also explores how Shakespeare has become subsumed into American culture, in part due to acts such as the release of the starlings.

The programme features Professor James Shapiro from Columbia University, Professor Paul Menzer of Mary Baldwin University, the cast of the American Shakespeare Center - including KP Powell as Hotspur, Joe di Constanzo from the American Museum of Natural History, Dan Rausch from Washington DC Department of the Environment, envirohmental historian Harriet Ritvo, and pet shop owner and nature educator Laurel Zoet.

It also includes Laurel's pet bird Pip the starling, who has quite a lot to say for himself.

Presenter and Producer: Zoë Comyns
A New Normal Culture production for BBC Radio 4

How did a single starling mentioned in Shakespeare cause ecological disaster in the USA?

20190701

Radio 4 documentary