Are starlings taking over?

According to a recent story on the BBC, the answer is “yes, they are.”

“Starlings are lean and mean. In the industry they’re often called feathered bullets,” says Michael Begier, National Coordinator for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Airports Wildlife Hazards Program.

“They’re a particular problem at airports because they flock in very large numbers, and compared to other birds their bodies are very dense. They are about 27% more dense than a herring gull which is a much larger bird.”

When a flock of starlings strikes an airplane the effects can be devastating. In 1960 they caused the most deadly bird strike in US aviation history

The birds flew into the engines of a plane as it took off from Boston’s Logan Airport, and it crashed into the harbour, killing 62 people on board.

Starlings also cost US agriculture an estimated $1bn (£595m) a year in damage to crops – particularly fruit trees.

They can even cause milk production to drop at dairy farms because they steal the grain being fed to cows.

Taken on a recent visit to Central Park, NYC, these fellows are direct descendants of those first 80 to 100 first starlings.

Taken on a recent visit to Central Park, NYC, these fellows are direct descendants of those first 80 to 100 first starlings.

 

If you look at any bird book or website you can see that they are common all across the United States.  We have a few in our neighborhood and for many years I’ve watched from the bedroom window as a pair (probably not the same ones!) nest in an air vent in the house next door.  OK, so they are kinda mean and can be a problem but they are beautiful up close and fun to watch when they occasionally visit our feeders.  The purplish black spotted bird is technically the European Starling.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology it all begins with Shakespeare.

First brought to North America by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the nineteenth century, European Starlings are now among the continent’s most numerous songbirds. They are stocky black birds with short tails, triangular wings, and long, pointed bills. Though they’re sometimes resented for their abundance and aggressiveness, they’re still dazzling birds when you get a good look. Covered in white spots during winter, they turn dark and glossy in summer. For much of the year, they wheel through the sky and mob

  • All the European Starlings in North America descended from 100 birds [the BBC says there were 80] set loose in New York’s Central Park in the early 1890s. The birds were intentionally released by a group who wanted America to have all the birds that Shakespeare ever mentioned. It took several tries, but eventually the population took off. Today, more than 200 million European Starlings range from Alaska to Mexico, and many people consider them pests.
  • Because of their recent arrival in North America, all of our starlings are closely related. Genetically, individuals from Virginia are nearly indistinguishable from starlings sampled in California, 3,000 miles away. Such little genetic variation often spells trouble for rare species, but seems to offer no ill effects to starlings so far.

So why are starlings Shakespearean?  The BBC says they are mentioned in Henry IV Part 1

Hotspur is in rebellion against the King and is thinking of ways to torment him. In Act 1 Scene III he fantasizes about teaching a starling to say “Mortimer” – one of the king’s enemies.

“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,” Shakespeare wrote.

This might actually not be so much of a fantasy as they, like the Northern Mockingbird are mimics according to the ornithologists at Cornell.

Starlings are great vocal mimics: individuals can learn the calls of up to 20 different species. Birds whose songs starlings often copy include the Eastern Wood-Pewee, Killdeer, meadowlarks, Northern Bobwhite, Wood Thrush, Red-tailed Hawk, American Robin, Northern Flicker, and many others.

So maybe Henry could have taught a starling to speak the name of Mortimer

Close-up of a handsome starling

Close-up of a handsome starling

Photograph of flock:  Robert L. Wyckoff

Photograph of single starling:  Lisa Bradley for the BBC.

Richard the Third the last Plantagenet

Richard III was, according to Shakespeare, one of the worst villans to rule England.  On the other hand, there were many, including Josephine Tey who believed otherwise.  And now, his bones have been found and identified.

The bones as discovered.

Greyfriars car park, Leicester, where the remains of King Richard III were found

Grey Friars car park, Leicester, where the remains of King Richard III were found.

According to the BBC

A skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park has been confirmed as that of English king Richard III.

Experts from the University of Leicester said DNA from the bones matched that of descendants of the monarch’s family.

Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, from the University of Leicester, told a press conference to applause: “Beyond reasonable doubt it’s Richard.”

Richard, killed in battle in 1485, will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral.

The Guardian detailed the careful science behind the declaration.

There were cheers when Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the hunt for the king’s body, finally announced that the university team was convinced “beyond reasonable doubt” that it had found the last Plantagenet king, bent by scoliosis of the spine, and twisted further to fit into a hastily dug hole in Grey Friars church, which was slightly too small to hold his body.

But by then it was clear the evidence was overwhelming, as the scientists who carried out the DNA tests, those who created the computer-imaging technology to peer on to and into the bones in raking detail, the genealogists who found a distant descendant with matching DNA, and the academics who scoured contemporary texts for accounts of the king’s death and burial, outlined their findings.

The skeleton’s injuries were consistent with accounts of Richard’s death.

Richard died at Bosworth on 22 August 1485, the last English king to fall in battle, and the researchers revealed how for the first time. There was an audible intake of breath as a slide came up showing the base of his skull sliced off by one terrible blow, believed to be from a halberd, a fearsome medieval battle weapon with a razor-sharp iron axe blade weighing about two kilos, mounted on a wooden pole, which was swung at Richard at very close range. The blade probably penetrated several centimetres into his brain and, said the human bones expert Jo Appleby, he would have been unconscious at once and dead almost as soon.

The injury appears to confirm contemporary accounts that he died in close combat in the thick of the battle and unhorsed – as in the great despairing cry Shakespeare gives him: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Another sword slash, which also went through the bone and into the brain, would also have proved fatal. But many of the other injuries were after death, suggesting a gruesome ritual on the battlefield and as the king’s body was brought back to Leicester, as he was stripped, mocked and mutilated – which would have revealed for the first time to any but his closest intimates the twisted back, a condition from an unknown cause, which began to contort his body from the age of about 10. By the time he died he would have stood inches shorter than his true height of 5′ 8″, tall for a medieval man. The bones were those of an unusually slight, delicately built man – Appleby described him as having an “almost feminine” build – which also matches contemporary descriptions.

According to the Boston Globe story

Richard III ruled England between 1483 and 1485, during the decades-long tussle over the throne known as the Wars of the Roses. His brief reign saw liberal reforms, including introduction of the right to bail and the lifting of restrictions on books and printing presses.

The discovery of Richard’s bones will not resolve the controversy surrounding him, however.  Most believe in the Shakespearean image of him as a the evil hunchbacked killer of two young princes in the Tower of London.

After I read Richard III in high school, my mother introduced me to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.  Her detective character, Alan Grant, takes up the case while in the hospital with the help of a young researcher who does the leg work.  The Wikipedia article about the book has a good summary of what Grant concluded and Tey believed.

The main arguments presented in the book in defence of King Richard:

  • There was no political advantage for Richard III in killing the young princes. He was legitimately made king.
  • There is no evidence that the princes were missing from the Tower when Henry VII took over.
  • Although a Bill of Attainder was brought by Henry VII against Richard it made no mention of the princes. There never was any formal accusation, much less a verdict of guilt.
  • Henry never produced the bodies of the dead princes for public mourning and a state funeral.
  • The mother of the Princes, Elizabeth Woodville, remained on good terms with Richard.
  • The Princes were more of a threat to Henry VII as the foundation of his claim to the crown was significantly more remote than theirs.

Grant and his American collaborator argue that there is little evidence of resistance to Richard’s rule (ignoring Buckingham’s rebellion). They allow that there were rumours of his murdering the princes during his lifetime, but they decide that the rumours had little circulation, and attribute them to the Croyland Chronicle and to the Lord Chancellor of France, and ultimately to Tudor sympathiser John Morton. They also propose that Morton was the actual author of Thomas More‘s biography of Richard, suggesting that the incomplete manuscript found after More’s death was an unfinished copy by More of Morton’s lost original. They conclude that the princes probably remained alive throughout Richard’s reign and were later killed by Henry.

The Richard III Society which sponsored discovery and will have his bones reinterred will still have work to do to clear his name.  Where are the alleged bones of the princes and can we now do DNA on them?

Photograph of car park Darren Staples/Reuters