Tuesday, April 07, 2009

March 6, 1890

The Portland Museum of Art had an opening this evening for its Biennial, and although there were many excellent things there, my favorite was this drawing, by an artist named Julianna Swaney, called "Central Park March 6 1890":

The man depicted is Eugene Schieffelin, who, as legend has it, made it his project to introduce all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to the new world in the late 19th century. He tried, and failed, to populate nightingales here "Believe me, love, it was the nightingale," Romeo and Juliet); he succeeded in introducing the House Sparrow ("Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow," Hamlet) and the European Starling, which was mentioned only once in all of Shakespeare's complete works:
Nay, I will; that's flat:
He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I'll holla 'Mortimer!'
I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
-Hotspur, in King Henry IV, part I.
And so, on March 6, 1890, Eugene Schiefflelin set free two flocks of starlings, the bird that Shakespeare considered to be an agent of torment, into Central Park. And the rest is history: the descendants of Schieffelin's starlings have multiplied themselves to a population of 200 million birds, living throughout temperate North America.

The starling has become a banner example of an unwanted invasive species. Yet Schieffelin was a member of the New York Zoological Society, and the American Acclimatization Society, a quasi-scientific organization that expressly sought to introduce non-native species into new ecosystems, in accordance with some scientific theories of the time. Without a doubt, he would have considered himself a conservationist.

In hindsight, we're prone to think of Schieffelin as an idiot. But on March 6, 1890, he was doing something he believed to be virtuous. As the birds flew out from the cage, he would have felt a sense of hope: the beginning of a new future. For all of the hassles it has caused in the years since, it must have been a beautiful moment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Let's dig up this idiot's remains and lay them out in Central Park where they can be rightfully pelted with the excrement of Starlings, sparrows and pigeons ; the pests he unleashed upon the native bird population. They are ugly and cover our country with sh*t, not to mention the fact they muscle out much more beautiful species in the process. If he has a gravestone, I hope it is covered in so much feces as to be illegible.