How Shakespeare and Starlings Led to a Flight of Misinformation
Allegheny College Researchers Use Literary Methods To Explore Humans’ Relationship With the Natural World
North America’s common starling has received a bad rap as a destructive invasive species, and an Allegheny College professor and student researcher have set out to clear the bird’s reputation and show how untruths can influence people’s perceptions in nature and beyond.
The research project by John MacNeill Miller, assistant professor of English, and then-student researcher Lauren Fugate ’20, is a melding of the humanities (the works of Shakespeare) and the sciences (ornithology).
“Starlings have become some of the most reviled birds in North America and we wanted to find out why,” says Miller. “Journalists, scientists, and environmentalists have long claimed that starlings were introduced to the United States by a Shakespeare enthusiast who was obsessed with importing all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. I always thought the story was fascinating, because it suggested just how profoundly literature might shape the natural landscapes around us. At the same time, I never found very credible sources for it,” Miller says.
With a population of about 200 million birds in North America, starlings are viewed as not only an invasive species, bullying other birds around feeders and nesting holes, but also as agricultural pests, causing $1.6 billion in damage to fruit and grain crops and spreading disease, says Miller.
“There haven’t been a lot of good things to say about starlings,” says Miller, who presented the findings virtually in the “Biophilia: Pittsburgh” lecture series hosted by the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in January. The talk, “A Story That Shaped the Sky: The Curious Case of Shakespeare’s Starlings,” draws on this case study to argue for the broader importance of using literary methods to understand humans’ relationship with the natural world. A recording of the presentation is available for viewing here.
So how did starlings earn such a fall from grace?
“While huge groups of starlings might be an annoyance, there’s not a lot of convincing data behind the more serious economic, ecological, and epidemiological claims against these birds,” says Miller. “The hatred toward starlings seems to be rooted in longstanding cultural prejudices rather than in actual facts about them.”
Common starlings are not native to North America, and many scientists, birders, and environmentalists don’t like them. But when Americans first imported starlings from Europe in the 1800s, they did so with a very welcoming and experimental spirit, says Miller. Those who imported starlings admired the birds for their extraordinary skills at vocal mimicry and their appetite for insect pests.
By the early 1900s, starlings had definitively established themselves in North America — and attitudes began to turn against them, Miller says. “But those attitudes had little to do with any biological or ecological problems caused by the starlings themselves, and a lot more to do with growing anti-immigration attitudes in the U.S. — attitudes that extended to nonhuman species,” he says. ”You can see this in the very political language casting starlings as foreign invaders that appears regularly after the turn of the 20th century.”
When one of Miller’s students, Lauren Fugate, an English major and History minor, approached him a few years ago and asked if he needed a research assistant, “I suggested that she look into the story and try to trace it to its source.” With the support of the Provost’s Office and Allegheny’s Heber Harper Endowed Fund, Fugate began researching the question in the summer of 2018.
When it began to look like the Shakespeare story was untrue, that realization launched Fugate and Miller into a much deeper investigation into where the story came from, why it became popular, and what it could tell them about American attitudes toward this bird—and toward nonnative species in general. It turned into a multi-year collaboration and a co-authored article that will be published in the journal Environmental Humanities in the fall of 2021.
“Doing this project with Professor Miller gave me the confidence in myself to incorporate interdisciplinary sources into my literary analysis, and vice versa, because the sources he had me looking at ranged from law documents to poems to scientific articles,” says Fugate, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. “I had previously felt unqualified to touch such sources, but Professor Miller helped me see that a degree in English is really about learning how to analyze different texts or ideas with a particular lens in mind, and that the humanities emphasis of English, as a field, does not make the analysis it produces any less valuable than what is produced in more ‘logical’ areas.”
Fugate’s research found that as dislike of the birds grew, so did a new rumor about how they got here. According to that rumor, starlings were imported by a misguided Shakespeare fanatic, a well-to-do entrepreneur named Eugene Schieffelin, who was obsessed with introducing into North America every bird mentioned in Shakespeare.
“That story is essentially fiction, but it did a lot to color how people saw starlings in the 20th century,” Miller says. “I wish I could say we all approach starlings more neutrally and evenhandedly now. Unfortunately, those older attitudes and language are still in circulation today, often in supposedly scientific discussions of starlings as examples of non-native, ‘invasive’ species.”
So what is the broader importance of using literary methods to understand humans’ relationship with the natural world?
Literary methods help readers see the social, political, and ethical implications of language—implications that are not always clear or explicitly stated, Miller says. It doesn’t matter whether that language is found in a famous poem, an obscure newspaper article, or a prize-winning scientific paper. “Reading historical documents about nature with a critical eye—whether those texts are capital-‘L’ Literature or not—can help us understand how our ideas and values might be related to those past attitudes,” he says.
The moral of the history unearthed by Miller and Fugate is that “we never see nature with fresh, pure, objective eyes. We see it through the selective vision of our cultural beliefs and values,” says Miller. “That’s actually a good thing, because it’s what enables us to have meaningful, enriching relationships to the animals and plants around us. But being aware of our selective vision—of the way even nature is accessible to us only through the medium of culture—should also keep us humble. It should remind us to be wary of perceived certainties about which animals and plants around us are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad.’ It should keep us curious and open-minded about the value of creatures we’ve been taught to write off as uninteresting or even insidious. Starlings probably aren’t the only pest species that deserve a second look.”