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©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.

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.

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."

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.