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The manifest destiny of starlings. How a nod to Shakespeare unleashed an avian conquest

Between 1890 and 1891, a wealthy New Yorker named Eugene Schieffelin released dozens of starlings into Central Park as part of his campaign to introduce animals that were ‘aesthetically and practically valuable’ to the US. It was a romantic and well-intentioned undertaking – an endeavour to bring all of the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare to the country. Only the European starlings survived, but the results were spectacular beyond Schieffelin’s wildest imagination – and utterly disastrous. Within 100 years, the starling population was more than 100 million, with the migratory birds wreaking havoc on farms and native species across the country, and forever reshaping the continent’s sky. A meditation on the starling’s strange North American story, the directors Jessica Bardsley and Penny Lane’s lyrical short documentary The Commoners traces an idiosyncratic history of ecology, linguistics and urbanism, one in which the birds pursue their own form of manifest destiny.

22 March 2018

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