Birds of Shakespeare: The common starling

Starling painting
Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) by Missy Dunaway
, 30×22 inches, acrylic ink on paper

With the common starling, we continue following artist Missy Dunaway on a bird-watching expedition through Shakespeare’s works. Supported by a 2021 Folger artist-in-residence fellowship, her growing collection of paintings aims to catalog every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems—at least 65 species. Read more on the Collation blog about Dunaway’s approach and research using the Folger collection. To find natural science facts about each species as well as paintings of more birds in the series, visit her website BirdsofShakespeare.com.


The starling is only mentioned once by Shakespeare. However, it has become one of the most prominent representatives of Shakespeare’s birds due to an occurrence in New York City centuries after his death. I’ve divided this month’s post into three sections to address each facet of the starling’s story.

Shakespeare’s starling

The common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is one of the avian world’s most talented and intelligent linguists. It adds to its immense vocabulary throughout its lifetime, even learning the songs of other birds.[1] It can imitate consecutive sentences of human speech in a mechanical-sounding voice, which inspires its sole appearance in Shakespeare’s collected works.

In Henry IV, Part 1, Henry Hotspur fantasizes about training a starling to repeat “Mortimer” to goad King Henry IV into ransoming his brother-in-law. This reference implies that the starling is a brainless bird that mindlessly mimics speech:

Henry IV, Part 1 (Act I, Scene 3, Line 228)

HOTSPUR: He said he would not ransom Mortimer,
Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer.
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll hollo “Mortimer.”
Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.

Scene from Henry IV, Part 1
Henry Hostpur (center) conspires to train a starling to holler the name “Mortimer” to interrupt the king’s slumber in the first act of Henry IV, Part 1. Folger Shakespeare Library

Eugene Schieffelin’s starling

Henry IV, Part 1 was first published as a quarto in 1598.[2] Almost three hundred years later, in 1890, a man named Eugene Schieffelin set free one hundred starlings in Central Park. The starlings flourished in North America, multiplying to today’s estimated population of 200 million.[3]

Urban legend describes Schieffelin as an eccentric socialite who wanted to bring every bird species mentioned by William Shakespeare to the United States. However, no recorded words from Schieffelin, firsthand account, or even a secondhand account exists to corroborate the tale.

Researchers Lauren Fugate and John MacNeill Miller dug to the bottom of this myth in their 2021 article, “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Their research and evidence support that Schieffelin likely followed the mission of his naturalist club, the American Acclimatization Society.[4] This popular, global community exchanged plant and animal species between continents believing it would enrich biodiversity and allow evolutionary biologists to study how species adapted to new environments.[5]

Eugene Schieffelin’s 1906 obituary offers another theory: he was an avid gardener hoping to find a bird that would eradicate a caterpillar invading his garden in Madison Square Park:

He was the first to import English sparrows into this country—his purpose being to exterminate the caterpillars which infested the trees in Madison Square where the Schieffelin home was. He imported and liberated many other species of birds, among them the starling.[6]

Schieffelin’s obituary describes his love of painting, his career as a pharmacist, and confirms the starling release—but does not mention Shakespeare or even an interest in theater or literature.

Edwin Way Teale, a twentieth-century naturalist writer, provides the earliest record of the Shakespeare intention 41 years after Schieffelin’s death.[7] In his 1947 essay, “In Defense of the Pesky Starling,” Teale presents Schieffelin’s Shakespeare intention as fact:

Their coming was the result of one man’s fancy. That man was Eugene Schief-felin, a wealthy New York drug manufacturer. His curious hobby was the introduction into America of all the birds mentioned in William Shakespeare.[8]

Teale’s unpublished notes record his uncertainty about the idea and reveal that he was offering a personal hypothesis correlating two trends of the late nineteenth century: acclimatization (such as the American Acclimatization Society of which Schieffelin was a member) and Shakespeare commemorative gardens.[9] Teale’s theory assumes an interest in Shakespeare’s botany would extend to ornithology, the study of birds.

With the seed planted by Edwin Way Teale, the idea blossomed in 1974, thanks to an article written by Robert Cantwell for Sports Illustrated entitled “A Plague of Starlings”.[10] Cantwell recast the elderly pharmacist as a glamorous socialite with an eccentric love of the theater, a description which fascinated readers:

The man who released the birds was Eugene Schieffelin, an elegant and eccentric figure in New York high society… He was lean, handsome, aristocratic, with thin features, a prominent nose and a thick drooping mustache.[11]

starling murmuration
The most impressive starling murmurations are found in northern Scotland between December and January.

The starling today

Forty years after Schieffelin’s release, Schieffelin’s starlings developed a reputation as an invasive species in North America. Scientists argued that starlings forced native birds to compete for food and nesting sites. This attitude was prevalent in the mid-1900s when the starling was commonly depicted as a foreign pest infringing on the rights and resources of native birds.[12] However, it is difficult to blame the starling when many factors threaten birds and contribute to their decline, like habitat destruction, climate change, pesticides, and pollution.

Today, scientists question if the starling’s reputation as a pest is a political, nationalistic attitude was inappropriately applied to nature.[13] Even the claim that starlings damage crops is questionable, as Fugate and Miller explain:

The commonly cited claim that starlings inflict $800 million in agricultural damage annually is adapted from a single British study from 1980—one that finally faults bad harvesting practices, not starlings. Efforts to associate starlings with disease in livestock have also failed to find a convincing link.[14]

Sadly, Starling populations are declining. The IUCN Red List marks the starling as “Least Concern” with a current population trend of decreasing.[15] Luckily, they are still populous enough to form shape-shifting flocks by the thousands.[16] These gigantic swarms, called murmurations, resemble schools of fish in the sky. The most spectacular murmurations are seen in northern Scotland between December and January.

The awesome sight of a murmuration is just one example of how this remarkable bird lends itself to myth-making through the centuries—from Shakespeare to Schieffelin and beyond.


[1] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871)

[2] Mowat, Barbara. Werstine, Paul. “An Introduction to this Text: Henry IV, Part 1.” Folger Shakespeare Library. https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/henry-iv-part-1/an-introduction-to-this-text/. Accessed November 2, 2022.

[3] “European Starling.” All About Birds. The Cornell Lab. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/European_Starling/overview. Accessed April 5, 2022.

[4] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.

[5] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.

[6] “Obituary: Schieffelin, Eugene.” The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Volume 37, Page 317.

[7] Teale, Edwin Way. “In Defense of the Pesky Starling.” Coronet Magazine, November 1947.

[8] Teale, Edwin Way. “In Defense of the Pesky Starling.” Coronet Magazine, November 1947.

[9] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.

[10] Cantwell, Robert. “A Plague of Starlings.” Sports Illustrated, September 09, 1974.

[11] Cantwell, Robert. “A Plague of Starlings.” Sports Illustrated, September 09, 1974.

[12] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.

[13] Hofmeister, Natalie. “Essay: Are Starlings Really “Invasive Aliens”?” All About Birds. The Cornell Lab. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/essay-are-starlings-really-invasive-aliens/#:~:text=Officially%2C%20the%20European%20Starling%20is,our%20ecosystem%20and%20our%20economy. Accessed April 5, 2022.

[14] Fugate, Lauren. Miller, John MacNeill. “Shakespeare’s Starlings: Literary History and the Fictions of Invasiveness.” Duke University Press, November 1, 2021.

[15] BirdLife International. 2019. Sturnus vulgaris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T22710886A137493608. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-3.RLTS.T22710886A137493608.en. Accessed on 31 October 2022.

[16] “European Starling.” All About Birds. The Cornell Lab. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/European_Starling/overview. Accessed August 3, 2022.