Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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Poike/iStock via Getty Images Plus
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Winter is Coming: Why Some People Seem to Feel Colder Than Others

Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
shironosov/iStock via Getty Images

For a few weeks a year, as winter turns into spring, or summer gives way to fall, people in heavy coats coexist with those in sandals and shorts. Similarly, in an office where the thermostat is set at 74°F, some workers will be comfortable in short sleeves, while others will be wearing sweaters and scarves.

Underlying this disagreement are the different ways people perceive cold—and scientists are still trying to understand them.  

Men, Women, and Metabolism

In work settings, men and women often have different opinions about the ideal temperature. A 2019 study found that women performed better in math and verbal tasks at temperatures between 70°F and 80°F, while men did better below 70°F. The researchers proposed that gender-mixed workplaces might boost productivity by setting the thermostat higher than the current norm (which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests should be between 68°F and 76°F).  

The discrepancy has a known physical basis: Women tend to have lower resting metabolic rates than men, due to having smaller bodies and higher fat-to-muscle ratio. According to a 2015 study, indoor climate regulations are based on an “empirical thermal comfort model” developed in the 1960s with the male workers in mind, which may overestimate female metabolic rates by up to 35 percent. To compound the problem, men in business settings might wear suits year-round, while women tend to have more flexibility to wear skirts or sundresses when it's warm outside.

Culture and the Cold

Cultural factors are also involved. European visitors are habitually alarmed by the chilly temperatures in American movie theaters and department stores, while American tourists are flabbergasted at the lack of air conditioning in many European hotels, shops, and offices. The preferred temperature for American workspaces, 70°F, is too cold for Europeans that grew up without the icy blast of air conditioners, Michael Sivak, a transportation researcher formerly at the University of Michigan, told The Washington Post in 2015.

The effects of cultural change on the human ability to withstand extreme temperatures can be dramatic. In the 19th century, 22 percent of women on the Korean island of Jeju were breath-hold divers (haenyeo). Wearing thin cotton bathing suits, haenyeo dove nearly 100 feet to gather shellfish from the sea floor, holding their breath for more than three minutes in each dive. In winter, they stayed in 55°F-57°F water for up to an hour at the time, and then warmed up by the fire for three of four hours before jumping back in.

In the 1970s, haenyeo starting wearing protective wet suits. Studies conducted between the 1960s and the 1980s showed that their tolerance for cold diminished [PDF].

Blame Your Brain

Beyond the effects of cultural practice and body composition, scientists have started to identify the cognitive factors that influence our temperature perception. It turns out that what feels unpleasantly cold versus comfortably chill is partly in our own minds.

One example is the phenomenon described as “cold contagion.” A 2014 study asked participants to view videos of people immersing their hands in visibly warm or cold water. Observers not only rated the hands in cold water as cooler than those in hot water, but their own hands became cooler when watching the cold-water videos. There was no comparable effect for the warm water videos, however. The findings suggest that we may feel colder when surrounded by shivering people at the office than if we're there by ourselves, even when setting the thermostat at the same temperature in both cases.

Other studies highlight the psychological aspects of temperature perception. Experimental participants at the Institute of Biomedical Investigations in Barcelona, Spain, watched their arms become blue, red, or green by means of virtual reality, while the neuroscientist Maria Victoria Sanchez-Vives and her team applied heat to their actual wrists. As the temperature increased, participants felt pain earlier when their virtual skin turned red than when it turned blue or green.

Subjectivity in temperature perception has led to some creative treatments for burn patients. In the 1990s, Hunter Hoffman, David Patterson, and Sam Sharar of the University of Washington developed a virtual-reality game called SnowWorld, which allows patients in hospital burn units to experience virtual immersion in a frozen environment. Amazingly, playing SnowWorld counteracted pain during wound care more effectively than morphine did.

“The perception of temperature is influenced by expectations,” Sanchez-Vives tells Mental Floss. “Putting one’s hand inside a virtual oven is perceived as ‘hot,’ while sticking one’s hand into a virtual bucket filled with iced water is perceived as ‘cold,’ despite being at room temperature in each scenario.”

In other words, if you expect to feel cold walking into the office or out on the street, chances are that you will.