Citizenship for the starling?

In 1939, not long after publishing her first major essay Undersea, Rachel Carson published a short 3-page article called “How About Citizenship Papers for the Starling?” in Nature Magazine. In the article, she discusses the recent spread of the European starling, a bird which had been introduced from Britain to New York in 1890-91. While admitting that the some people considered the starling a foreign nuisance, she felt that its service as an insect-catcher outweighed those concerns. This service deserved recognition:

On one point ornithologists are pretty well agreed –the starling is here to stay. Shall we then continue to regard him as alien or shall we conclude that his successful pioneering and his service in insect destruction entitle him to American citizenship?

Like all the pioneer settlers of the US, who at first were foreign, according to Carson, the starling had laid claim to his right to be there.

The starling in the US from May Thatcher Cooke, The spread of the European starling in North America (to 1928), US Department of Agriculture.
The plumages of starling. In May Thatcher Cooke, The spread of the European starling in North America (to 1928), US Department of Agriculture, 1928

Carson was not the first to discuss the starling’s status within citizenship language. Frank M. Chapman, curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History and editor of the Audubon Society’s Bird-Love , had published an article “The European Starling as an American Citizen” in 1925. Chapman directly made the connection between starling settlement and American colonists:

Nature has accorded him ‘papers’ and he exercises all the privileges of citizenship. … Now whatever we ourselves may be, whether our forebearers came over on the Mayflower or on the Mauretania, there can be no doubt that these birds are Americans.

Citizenship language is a major way that people talk about animal species. Nationalism and patriotism are in play in many reintroduction efforts. Both the muskox and beaver reintroductions in Sweden have included talk of them being inhabitants and countrymen. In the case of the muskox, their ‘citizenship’ status is still denied so they cannot be protected by a threatened or endangered species action plan. At the same time, some introduced species have overcome their introduced status and even earned a place as state symbols.

Both Chapman and Carson were making claims about the ‘belonging’ status of the starling in the US. While the birds were a relatively recent introduction, their great success at spreading rapidly through the country and their service as insectivores (even though it was often unacknowledged) meant that they belonged in this land. They had earned a right to live here.

After her work pointing out the dangers of chemical insecticides and pesticides in Silent Spring, Carson would likely be horrified that there is a pesticide, Starlicide, manufactured to target starlings. Although its target is starlings, ravens, crows, pigeons, cowbirds, grackles, blackbirds, magpies, and certain gulls, the Environmental Protection Agency assessment of the pesticide shows a high risk to non-target birds and small mammals. Starlicide is most often used to get rid of starlings considered farming nuisances. Starlings are not protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act–it is one of only three birds (the house sparrow and pigeon are the others) which have no federal protection in the US. Obviously, the starling has still not been granted the citizenship status that Chapman and Carson argued for.

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