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Our Fellow Immigrants
From the Old to the New World have come not only men but mice, peas and pigeons, cabbages and goats—multitudes of animal and vegetable settlers that have thrived in their adopted land
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
Only three eastern hemisphere game birds have thus far settled in this country with any notable permanence. By far the most conspicuous success has been that of the ring-necked pheasant. A century of fruitless efforts to persuade this bird to settle here preceded the arrival of several pairs from Shanghai in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1881. Today, their descendants are scattered from coast to coast across the northern half of the country and number in the millions. A few decades later the Hungarian partridge found the northern Great Plains to its liking and became firmly established there, and since World War II the chukar partridge from Asia Minor has taken hold in the arid parts of the Northwest.
By coincidence, the big successes among the nongame bird immigrants also number three. The first of these to become established here was the common pigeon, or rock dove, a feral descendant of domesticated pigeons kept by Virginia colonists as early as 1621. Its wild ancestors nested in cliffs, but it has found the ledges and cornices of human dwellings far safer and more comfortable. The reason for its prospering appears to be that, unlike most native species, it can not only tolerate but actively profit from the changes wrought by man in the ecology of the continent.
The same is true of the other two—the house sparrow and the starling. The former is often called the English sparrow, presumably because that is where the Brooklyn Natural History Society’s President Woodcock got the ones he turned loose; actually it is neither a sparrow nor of English origin. It is an African weaverbird. And not only does it profit from human activities, but it also adapts itself with remarkable facility to changes in those activities.
During the bird’s first sixty years in this country, for instance, its chief and overwhelmingly plentiful food supply was the undigested grain in horse droppings. When that supply began to dwindle, it switched to a great variety of other food sources. Now some of the birds hang around filling stations to pick up the dead insects that fall off cars when they stop for gasoline. Others can be found dining on beach sea wrack and snatching bits of angleworms away from robins five times their size.
Today, however, the starling is by far the most successful of all immigrant birds, game or otherwise, in adaptation to the ecological revolution effected by humans on this continent. It also does better than native birds; some ornithologists think it may now be the most abundant bird in the hemisphere. And it has accomplished all this in little more than seventy years.
Shakespeare started the whole thing. In Henry IV , Part I, he made Henry Percy (Hotspur) say: “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak …” Three centuries after this was written, a German-born American drug manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin, who doted on Shakespeare, decided that he wanted to do something for both his adopted land and his favorite dramatist and that the something should consist of transplanting to the former birds of every species mentioned in the plays of the latter. Shakespeare had a word to say about a great many birds, and Schieffielin had plenty of funds to devote to the enterprise. He devoted most of them to importing and releasing in and around New York City hundreds of pairs of skylarks, song thrushes, nightingales, and suchlike. None survived long enough to raise broods. On March 6, 1890, he finally got around to starlings and turned forty pairs loose in Central Park. The next spring he loosed another twenty pairs in the same place. At last he achieved success.
For millions of Americans the results of that success grow more annoying year by year. A discovery a few years ago by the custodian of the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois, added a frightening dimension to that annoyance. He noticed that the roof seemed to be sagging. He investigated. He found that it was covered by more than ten tons of starling droppings.
Only two immigrant mammals, other than man, have rivaled the starling’s proliferation in this hemisphere. Like the starling, both owe man a great deal, although he has never sought to be helpful to either. They are the house rat and the house mouse.
With man’s help the house rat has scored one of the more spectacular biological triumphs in the history of life on earth. Yet the first record we have of it goes back only 236 years. In 1727 a great horde of the creatures engulfed the city of Astrakhan on the northern shore of the Caspian Sea. They apparently had originated somewhere in eastern Siberia, and some unknown compulsion drove them westward. Within a few months they reached Germany and within a year, England. In 1775 their first known representatives landed in Boston. Others were resident in San Francisco in time to greet the forty-niners. Today the species is established all over both temperate zones.
Unintentionally, we human beings have been especially helpful to rat immigrants in this hemisphere. We have provided them transportation hither. We have cleared out the native rodents which might have resented and resisted their intrusion (the squirrel-like American wood rats, for instance, find civilized man and his works so distasteful that they long ago withdrew from all settled areas). And we have set for them a most magnificently bounteous table. Rodent control specialists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that in this country alone we spend, albeit involuntarily, an annual average of three dollars per person on feeding our 100,000,000 house rats.