American Acclimatization Society
The American Acclimatization Society was a group founded in New York City in 1871 dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna into North America for both economic and cultural reasons. The group's charter explained its goal was to introduce "such foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting." The society's efforts had a powerful impact on the natural history of North America, particularly due to its unfortunate success in introducing invasive bird species.
In 1854, the Société zoologique d'acclimatation was founded in Paris by French naturalist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, whose 1849 treatise Acclimatation et domestication des animaux utiles ("Acclimatization and Domestication of Useful Animals") had urged the French government to introduce, and when necessary selectively breed, foreign animals both to provide meat and to control pests. The group inspired the formation of similar groups around the world, particularly in countries that had been colonized by Europeans.
Even before the American society's founding, wealthy New York residents and naturalists had deliberately sought to introduce foreign animals. In 1864 the commissioners of Central Park had introduced Java sparrows, house sparrows, chaffinches and blackbirds into the park. The European sparrows were reported to have "multiplied amazingly" -- they quickly became one of the most common birds in New York—though the others did not seem to do as well. After the society's founding, such efforts were redoubled. The group's annual meeting held at the New York aquarium in 1877 reported that the release of 50 pairs of English skylarks into Central Park had only been a partial success, since most had flown across the East River to take up residence at Newtown and Canarsie in Brooklyn. At the meeting, the recent release of European starlings, Japanese finches and pheasants into the park were noted. The meeting adjourned with the group resolved to introduce more chaffinches, skylarks, European robins and tits -- "birds which were useful to the farmer and contributed to the beauty of the groves and fields" -- in the city.
By 1877 New York pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin was the chairman of the society. Another notable member of the society was wealthy silk merchant Alfred Edwards, who constructed bird boxes around Manhattan to help house sparrows to breed.
But it was Schieffelin, an avid admirer of Shakespeare, who was the society's driving force. Some accounts of his efforts claim that he had resolved that as an aesthetic goal, the organization should introduce every bird species mentioned in the Bard's works. Other accounts say this is unproven. The society's wildest success was with the European starling. The bird appears in Henry IV, Part 1 when Hotspur considers using its vocal talents to drive the King mad. Since King Henry was refusing to pay a ransom to release his disloyal brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer, Hotspur says: "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but "Mortimer," and give it him, to keep his anger still in motion."
The American poet William Cullen Bryant admired Schieffelin's efforts and wrote his poem The Olde-World Sparrow ("A winged settler has taken his place/With Teutons and Men of the Celtic race") after spending an evening with Schieffelin, who had just released a shipment of sparrows into his yard. Schieffelin himself is seen by modern biologists as "an eccentric at best, a lunatic at worst." The society's effort to introduce Shakespeare's birds into New York's public parks was described as "infamous" by the ecologist John Marzluff, who also called the establishment of a breeding population of starlings the society's "most notorious introduction." Marzluff writes that the motives of the 19th century acclimatization enthusiasts were largely cultural: "Western European settlers introduced many species throughout the world because they wanted birds from their homelands in their new environs."
Impact and the starlings
Though some starlings had been released before the Society was founded, they had not become well established and in 1890 and 1891 100 more were released. By the early 21st century, more than 200 million European starlings had spread throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada. Their aggressive competition for nesting cavities has long been thought to be responsible for the collapse of some native bird populations, among them New York's state bird, the eastern bluebird, though some research has found that this is unlikely, except in the case of sapsuckers. The US government still believes the starlings' competition for nesting cavities is harmful to native bird populations and says they also cause crop damage.
Largely because of the spread of the European starling, a 2007 article in the San Francisco Chronicle (deriding the introduction of fallow deer to the Point Reyes National Seashore) called the society "the canonic cautionary tale of biological pollution."
The raucous starling remains one of the most publicly reviled of North America's invasive species, and has been blamed for helping to spread invasive plants like English Ivy and disrupting air traffic when in large flocks.
- Review of Tinkering With Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America from Discover Magazine, January 2001
- The History of Soy Pioneers Around the World
- American Acclimatization Society, New York Times, November 15, 1877
- Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back, pp. 152-155, (New York: Vintage Books, 1997)
- Tinkering With Eden pg. 138, Kim Todd, W.W. Norton & Company
- Tinkering With Eden pg. 137, Kim Todd, W.W. Norton & Company
- Urban Ecology pg. 406, John M. Marzluff, Spring (publisher)
- Mirsky, Steve (May 23, 2008). "Shakespeare to Blame for Introduction of European Starlings to U.S.". Scientific American Magazine. Retrieved November 14, 2012.
- US Department of Agriculture's "invasive species" listing for the European Starling
- Easy Target: There's a plan afoot to eradicate the white fallow deer in Point Reyes San Francisco Chronicle, CM-6, May 6, 2007
- Invasive species in the Pacific Northwest pg. 180, P. Dee Boersma, Sarah H. Reichard, Amy N. Van Buren, University of Washington Press