Image credits: Vulture, by Dori (email@example.com), CC BY-SA 2.0. Zane Grey in 1895, in Penn’s baseball uniform (http://hdl.library.upenn.edu/1017/d/archives/20051010001), public domain.
A couple of weeks ago I was in California, keeping my eyes peeled for interesting birds. Disappointingly, the first bird I saw was a starling – a bird I could have seen almost anywhere in the temperate world. The second was a turkey vulture. Vultures are common and ecologically important scavengers across most of the world*, although none occur in England or Scandinavia. There, eagles, kites, and corvids include carrion in their diets, but the avifauna lacks a carrion specialist – that niche is vacant.
This got me thinking.
There’s a reason I could see a starling in California, and it has to do with Shakespeare. If you know all about the Eugene Schieffelin and the American Acclimatization Society, then take this jump; otherwise, here’s the scoop.
Eugene Schieffelin (1827-1906) was a pharmaceutical manufacturer living in New York. In the 1870-1880s, he was the Chair of the American Acclimatization Society, an organization that aimed to introduce foreign birds to the United States. While there’s some disagreement, most sources suggest that the Society and Schieffelin were particularly interested in bringing to the U.S. all the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare**. Among the birds they therefore released into New York’s Central Park were house sparrows, starlings, chaffinches, and skylarks; the first two introductions, at least, were roaring successes. Starlings are actually mentioned just once in Shakespeare, in Henry IV, Part I. The nobleman Hotspur wants King Henry to pay the ransom (demanded by the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower) for a group of prisoners including his (Hotspur’s) brother-in-law Mortimer. But Henry refuses, and Hotspur rages,
He said he would not ransom Mortimer,
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer.
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll holla “Mortimer.”
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
And that’s it: Shakespeare’s only interest in the starling, but apparently enough reason for Eugene Schieffelin’s.
Which brings me to my modest proposal. William Shakespeare was arguably the greatest English writer, and for Schieffelin, this justified introducing to the U.S. all the birds mentioned in his works. It could only be fitting to return the favour by introducing to England all the birds mentioned by the greatest American writer.
But who is the “greatest American writer”? You might be tempted by Ernest Hemingway, or Mark Twain, or Herman Melville, or Cormac McCarthy – but the real answer, of course, is Zane Grey. Or at least I think so – I’ve never actually read any of his books. (I’ve read some Hemingway and some Twain, and I’ve attempted but failed to read Melville and McCarthy.)
Zane Grey was in many ways the quintessentially American writer. He wrote the classic western Riders of the Purple Sage and more than 90 other books. In addition to westerns, he wrote books about fishing, hunting, and baseball. He attended the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship to study dentistry, but reveled in the outdoors – especially the American West – and writing about it. His works have been the basis for over 100 movies and several TV series (including The Lone Ranger). Erle Stanley Gardner, himself an American icon, wrote of Zane Grey that [he] “had the knack of tying his characters into the land, and the land into the story. There were other Western writers who had fast and furious action, but Zane Grey was the one who could make the action not only convincing but inevitable, and somehow you got the impression that the bigness of the country generated a bigness of character.”
Critical reception of Zane Grey’s work was mixed, but T.K. Whipple once wrote that the typical Zane Grey novel involved “a battle of passions with one another and with the will, a struggle of love and hate, or remorse and revenge, of blood, lust, honor, friendship, anger, grief—all of a grand scale and all incalculable and mysterious”. Rather appropriately, this would seem to work just as well as a description of the typical Shakespearean play. So, if we’re going to introduce to England all the birds mentioned by the greatest American writer, we can only mean all the birds mentioned by Zane Grey.
So which birds are we talking about? Well, the works of Zane Grey have (unaccountably) received less scholarly attention than those of William Shakespeare, so I’ve been unable to find a complete list. But a little research turned up these as a start: magpies (Tales of Lonely Trails), blackbirds and meadowlarks (Tales of Fishes), catbirds, robins, blue jays, and ruffed grouse (The Last Trail), white hawks (Riders of the Purple Sage), mockingbirds, song sparrows, and black swifts (Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado) – and, luckily for my original inspiration, vultures (The Light of Western Stars).
Just imagine the gratitude of the English when the American Robin struts alongside the European, when catbirds and mockingbirds sing as the sun rises above the North Sea, and when vultures soar over the sheep farms of the Lake District. You’re welcome.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) Apr 1 2015
Obligatory disclaimer: I don’t actually think we should do this (check the posting date). But everything else in this post is absolutely true. I think.
*Old World and New World vultures, though, are not closely related.
**Other acclimatization societies were operating around the world, mostly in ex-British colonies, and they introduce starlings (and other birds) too.