Of all New Jersey's invasive species, one of the biggest pests might be the starling — a cheeky little bird once beloved but now largely detested around the globe.
The starling's story in New Jersey starts in 1877, when a group of eccentric birdwatchers calling themselves the American Acclimatization Society got together to discuss the results of their latest project. For the second year in a row, they planned to introduce wild birds from around the globe to their New York and New Jersey neighborhoods.
The New York Times covered the meeting.
The newspaper reported that while the Java sparrows and chaffinches released in Central Park the previous July had disappeared, the European starlings were doing quite well.
"It was expected that they would all prosper," The Times reported.
Today, starlings number an estimated 200 million across the continental United States and Alaska. Their appetite and disease spread in their droppings cause $800 million in damage to crops and livestock every year, according to a 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Starling flocks have taken down at least two passenger planes — including one 1960 crash in Boston that killed 62 people — and forced several other commercial planes to abort takeoffs or make precautionary landings, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
In fact, planes departing Atlantic City International Airport hit more starlings than any other birds, according to federal records, but none so far have incurred any problems.
Starlings are successful in America because they are not picky eaters, they bully even bigger birds and they are fearless, said Pete Dunne, spokesman for New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory.
"It's an all-American bird — the quintessential American. It's an immigrant, it moved to the city and it usually gets its way," he quipped.
Starlings also have invaded Australia.
Anyone stopped at a traffic light in southern New Jersey has probably seen the speckled, iridescent birds picking at grassy medians, heedless of nearby cars or pedestrians.
"They are extremely versatile birds. They can figure out how to find food wherever they are. They forage like shorebirds. I've watched them eat fruit or fly-catch or eat a dropped doughnut," Dunne said.
By 1900 the birds had made themselves at home across New York, even building nests in the cornices of the Natural History Museum and prompting curious readers to write The Times to ask about them.
The paper sought the expertise of Staten Island naturalist William T. Davis, who identified the birds as offspring of the starlings introduced in Central Park.
"As the starling has not been found to interfere with other birds, we may be glad that he has come to stay," the naturalist concluded.
One common story, perhaps apocryphal, suggested the leader of the American Acclimatization Society, Eugene Schieffelin, wanted to introduce all the birds found in the plays and poems of William Shakespeare to America. But according to the Times, the club had a broader interest in "birds that were useful to the farmer and contributed to the beauty of the groves and fields."
Similar efforts to introduce skylarks and nightingales were underway in other parts of the country as recent immigrants sought to bring the natural sounds of Germany or England to hedgerows surrounding their new American homes.
But, as the bard said, the worm turned.
By 1912 the Times reported that roosting flocks of starlings were so annoying shoppers in Montclair, N.J., that police set off cannons at night to disperse the massive flocks, aptly enough called murmurations.
Even its Latin name, Sturnus vulgaris, connotes disdain for the sharp-beaked bird.
One reader said the starlings' song in such vast numbers was "about as musical as the hum of a sawmill or the din of a boiler factory." The Times editorialized that Montclair was overreacting or perhaps was suffering for its sins.
"If birds could only talk English or even the patois of New Jersey, we might get new light on this dark subject," the editorial sniped.
By 1914 the birds had spread to Connecticut, where the city of Hartford tied plush stuffed animals to trees and shot off fireworks to flush them away from homes, the Times reported.
That same year, New Jersey's Department of Fish and Game gave towns permission to shoot starlings as a nuisance. New York followed, with one official concluding, "The starlings have no intention of being exterminated. They know they can treat human efforts with contempt."
By 1921 flocks were so huge, they frustrated all efforts at eradication. The Times reported that one animal-control officer in Poughkeepsie shot at the starlings until his arms were tired and he could shoot no more.
Today, the federal government helps farmers poison or trap starlings wherever they present problems. The birds despoil livestock feedlots and can ruin blueberry crops simply by roosting en masse on the bushes.
One farm in Princeton Township, Mercer County, poisoned 5,000 starlings last year, according to published reports.
The USDA has no immediate plans to poison or lethally trap New Jersey starlings this year, perhaps because the bad economy is giving farmers incentive to find cheaper alternatives, wildlife-disease biologist Adam Randall said.
Starlings are one of the only birds in the United States that virtually can be shot on sight.
His agency offers both lethal and non-lethal management methods, the latter of which are geared mostly around keeping food away from the birds.
"They group up in the winter and can eat a ton of grain in a week," Randall said. "Think about a pet bird and how much you have to feed him. Now multiply that by 10,000."
Randall said the agency is not intent on eradicating starlings but simply helping farmers cope.
"Not all 200 million birds are a problem. It's the birds congregating near farms," he said.