A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Shakespeare and the Aflockalypse

What should we do with invasive species?

By Michael Mountain

Photo of starlings by Lee Karney, USFWS

We now know what happened in at least one of the mystery deaths of birds and other animals around the country.

As it turns out, the hundreds of starlings who fell out of the sky in Yankton, South Dakota, were killed by the federal government. Local police got a call from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to say they had put out poison for 5,000 birds in nearby Nebraska after getting complaints from local farmers that starlings, who are considered an “invasive species,” were entering their feed lots and causing a “health problem.” 

All about starlings

So where did the 200 million starlings across North America today come from in the first place?

In 1890, when there were no starlings in North America at all, 60 birds were brought to New York City from Europe and released into Central Park as part of a plan to introduce every kind of bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.

So it’s not quite the case that starlings are an “invasive” species. They didn’t invade anywhere; we brought them here.

Once they’d landed, the birds behaved like any other immigrants, starting a new life for themselves and competing for the lands and homes of other animals.

In 2008, U.S. government agents poisoned, shot and trapped 1.7 million starlings on the basis that they can pose a danger to air travel, disrupt cattle operations, chase off native birds and roost on city blocks. They leave behind corrosive droppings and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage every year.

So when ranchers in Nebraska started complaining about the local starlings, the USDA went straight into action.

The real invasive species

But who’s the real “invasive species” in all this? When the ranchers complain that a non-native species is causing problems for their cattle, that’s a bit ironic. All of us in this sad tale – the starlings, the cattle and the humans – are non-native.

Killing more animals is not just morally wrong; it never works.

And when we say that starlings “pose a danger” to planes, we might stop for a moment to acknowledge that from the starlings’ p.o.v., it’s somewhat the other way round!

And if starlings are causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to our way of life, we should at least give a moment’s thought to the fact that we humans are, by any standard, the most invasive of all species.

Is killing them the answer?

So, what’s the solution? Frankly, there’s no obvious answer. But there is indeed one unequivocal fact that can help lead us to an answer. It is, very simply, that more killing is never the answer.

Take another invasive species: homeless pets. Twenty years ago, up to 17 million of these unwanted, “nuisance” animals were being killed each year in places we called “shelters.” And a particular kind of invasive species, feral cats (descendants of people’s discarded housecats), were causing trouble for birds and other small animals.

The accepted solution at that time was simple: Kill them.

But that didn’t accomplish anything. Kill feral cats and others simply move in to fill the vacuum. It’s nature’s way. The starlings are now doing it. And we do the same thing ourselves: Kill millions of humans – like in a war – and more will arrive to fill their place.

Killing isn’t just morally wrong; it doesn’t work.

So even if we don’t yet have all the answers to the problems we’ve created, one thing is for sure: Only when you take killing off the table will anyone even begin to look for real answers.

With homeless pets, the first move was to make the commitment to no-kill. Then, wherever this was tried, answers began to appear: spay/neuter and adoption programs flourished … grassroots groups grew up … and today the numbers being killed in shelters have shrunk from 17 million to below 5 million. That’s real progress!

Mirror, mirror on the wall …

We humans brought the starlings here. We brought the cows. And we brought ourselves. We’re the invasive species, and in order to solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves and other animals, we have to start by accepting our own responsibility.

It’s time to stop the killing and to call a time-out. There are better answers. We only need to use our inventive intelligence to figure them out.

Once we do that, we’ll be able to live at peace with the animals, at peace with nature, and at peace with each other.

See Michael’s article: Has the Aflockalypse Begun?