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Bad ideas

Food For Thought

In 1890, a New York City man named Eugene Schieffelin had the not-so-bright idea to import every species of bird mentioned in the plays of William Shakespeare. Among the few species he managed to actually introduce to the city’s Central Park, was a flock of European starlings (referred to in Henry IV). Within 50 years, starlings colonized the entire North American continent– with dire results.
Roosting in noisy flocks of up into the hundreds of thousands, starlings have become a smelly, dirty, noisy nuisance and damage buildings, render parks and playgrounds unusable, and spread disease through their droppings. A large flock of the birds can strip an entire crop of grain, fruit or vegetables and quickly devour feed put out for livestock. They drive out many native birds through competition for food and nesting spots, particularly bluebirds, flickers, martins and wrens. It is estimated st`arlings have become the most populous bird in America, and probably the most hated.
On the other hand, the ring-neck pheasant, which was brought to the United States from China in the late 1700s, has been a successful and appreciated immigrant ever since. Unlike the starling and other non-native species, the pheasant has, apparently, not threatened our native birds to any extent. It is alarming, nevertheless, to find that, of all our native birds deemed endangered, nearly 70 percent are in jeopardy specifically because of competition from imported species.
Over time, the native species in an area evolve together and create an ecosystem that is more or less stable. When something disrupts this balance, either by natural changes or human action, unexpected (and often disastrous) things can result.
Here are some examples; during the 1600s, when exploration by sea was prevalent, sailors often introduced goats on some of the islands they visited. This was done in hopes the goats would thrive and provide a source of meat when they, or other seafarers, returned to the islands. Where there were no predators on the islands and ample food for the goats, they would soon overgraze an island, wiping out many of the native plants, some of which were essential to the survival of other animal life there, thus destroying not just the less hardy plant life but also the animals, and thus the entire ecosystem.
An Englishman who had immigrated to Australia missed the rabbit hunting he had long enjoyed in England, so he imported a couple dozen rabbits, turned them loose on his Victoria estate in 1859, and waited for them to provide him with his favorite sport. The rabbits did what rabbits do and, because it was such a hospitable country with few predators, they soon overran a great chunk of Australia. It took only a few decades for the rabbits (by then numbering in the tens of millions) to strip the countryside of a great deal of its vegetation. Native animals were robbed of shelter, food and water and their numbers decreased dramatically. Wheat farmers and sheep ranchers were bankrupted and, in desperation, spread poison to get rid of the rabbits. The rabbits, unfortunately, were able to reproduce rapidly enough their numbers continued to increase. Native animals, already on the decline, were also poisoned and could not rebound because of loss of habitat.
The European red fox was imported in another effort to get rid of the rabbits, but the foxes came to prefer the small native mammals, birds and reptiles. It took nearly a hundred years before Australia even began to bring the rabbit disaster under control by introducing a disease fatal to rabbits, but by then, incalculable and irreversible damage had been done.
We humans unknowingly transport harmful species of both plants and animals that have the potential to do great harm. Seeds, spores, eggs, larvae, and adults of plants, fungi, insects, snails, and other small animals travel in loads of fruits and vegetables, grain, timber, soil and other things we move from place to place. They hitchhike on our cars, shoes, clothing and pets.
In the mid 1940s, the brown tree snake stowed away on a military cargo ship and its descendants quickly took over the island of Guam, nearly wiping out the population of native birds there. It is sobering to remind ourselves plants and animals were on this planet long before we humans put in an appearance. We might be considered an invasive species in many ways. I hope we aren’t in the same category as kudzu and brown tree snakes.