Not an angel of the air, Bird melodious or bird fair, Be absent hence!Louis Ashworth

Not an angel of the air,

Bird melodious or bird fair,

Be absent hence!

- William Shakespeare, Bridal Song

Few people can claim to have loved Shakespeare as much as Eugene Schieffelin. Born to a wealthy New York family in 1827, he made his living as a pharmacist, but he is remembered for the part he played in the now notorious American Acclimatization Society. As chairman of the society, his goal was at once simple and utterly ludicrous: to introduce into America every species of bird ever mentioned in the complete works of Shakespeare.

The American Acclimatization Society, a New York City group founded with the purpose of importing European plants and animals to the United States, was one of many such societies around the world springing up in countries colonised by Europeans. This was a very peculiarly 19th century phenomenon; so was Shakespeare-mania, which reached its height around this time and saw the Bard elevated to almost godlike status. The two combined in a perfect storm with Schieffelin at the centre, who saw it as a necessary homage to his literary hero that all the bird species to have graced Shakespeare’s pen, over 600 of them, be released into his own homeland of America.

Needless to say, Schieffelin was not wholly successful. Nightingales, skylarks, bullfinches, all failed to gain a foothold, as they flew off into the frigid skies of New York and were never seen again. One species, however, fared rather differently. The common or European starling, mentioned in a single line of Henry IV, made its American debut in 1890 with the release of a 60-strong flock in Central Park. Another 40 were added to buoy their numbers the following year, and the damage was done. Starlings not only settled, but conquered, multiplying at an unstoppable rate and outcompeting numerous native species for nesting sites. They now number in the hundreds of millions, all descended from those original few, and incur costs of $800 million a year as they devour entire orchards and even disrupt air traffic with their sky-spanning flocks. All this, from one line in a play.

Today, Schieffelin’s disastrous introduction of starlings is often held up as an example of ecological near-sightedness, the consequences of not understanding the ways in which a single invasive species can radically alter a new environment. Taking a step back from the outcome, though, and looking again at the motivation, it also tells us something more subtle about the relationship between biodiversity and national identity. Schieffelin might have been an especially dramatic case, but he was not an isolated one. Why did so many European settlers and their direct descendants want to bring species from their homelands to the new lands they colonised?

Certainly, there were economic reasons such as controlling pests and establishing food stocks, but some commentators such as ecologist John Marzluff argue that the motives of 19th century acclimatization enthusiasts were largely cultural – they simply liked to be surrounded by their own native flora and fauna. The association of nationalities with certain species has a long and often confusing history; think of the lion, a staple of British heraldry, which died out in this country some 12,000-14,000 years ago but became the symbol of Richard the Lionheart and many other European rulers famed for their leonine strength and valour.

Often, animals take root in the national consciousness for precisely this reason – they appear to embody some trait that we admire. The deer is regal and elegant, the falcon swift and unfettered. Other times, it is a more banal but no less powerful connection: we simply find them cute. Few people, presumably, wish to emulate the hedgehog or the field mouse, but they are treasured as national emblems all the same.

This preoccupation with cuteness in nature manifests itself in some unusual ways, and not all of them harmless. The struggle of the native red squirrel against the invasive grey, first introduced from eastern North America in the 1870s as a fashionable addition to estates, is a well-documented one, and closely followed by the general public. Headlines like “The future is less grey as red squirrels battle their big, bullying cousins” are not uncommon, demonstrating a troubling tendency to anthropomorphise the animals that we as a species pitted against each other in the first place. Grey squirrels have no malicious intent, they simply found themselves in a new environment where they were bigger and bred quicker than their red counterparts.

Now consider the white-clawed crayfish. It is probably fair to assume that significantly fewer people have heard of this British native as compared to the red squirrel, and yet it faces a similarly dramatic plight, its numbers decimated by a plague-bearing American invader. You would be hard-pressed to find headlines lamenting the loss of the white-clawed crayfish, or celebrating its resurgence, while red squirrels continue to adorn Christmas cards and calendars despite the fact that most Brits have never even seen one.

For all our pretensions of loving our native flora and fauna, we seem guilty of preferential treatment, with a worrying skew towards the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Even leaving aside the ecological value of the white-clawed crayfish, what kind of natural stewards are we if we stand up only for the cute or the charismatic? Take a walk along the Cam, and you’ll likely see some ducks, perhaps a swan if you’re lucky. But spare a thought for all the species you don’t see – the hidden heroes of our ecosystems, less beautiful in form but just as important for the landscape that we hold dear, and just as much a part of the wonderful British wild.