Impacts of Rhodes on Biodiversity 3 : Common Starling

This is the third and final blog in this series. The first blog talked about the Eastern Grey Squirrel. The second covered four of the five bird species that Cecil John Rhodes introduced so that his residence in Cape Town would have familiar English birds in the garden; of these four only the Common Chaffinch didn’t quickly go extinct. The fifth bird species he introduced was his big success story. Rhodes’s vision of building a railway line northwards from Cape Town through Africa to Cairo failed; but his starling has made a promising start in covering the distance!

Rhodes’s starlings were captured on his behalf by another rogue of the era, Colonel Richard J. Meinertzhagen (1878-1967). He was a soldier; in any squadron of soldiers he would have been regarded as the nastiest. When he wasn’t shooting people he was shooting birds for museum collections. But he couldn’t get enough birds of his own, so he stole skins of birds from museums, and then put his own labels on them, with completely different places and dates. Here’s a link to a paper in the journal Ibis called “Richard Meinertzhagen—a case of fraud examined“. It goes so far as to say: “Given the readiness with which Meinertzhagen falsified data on stolen specimens, one must question the authenticity of data on specimens he collected himself.” That is not what you expect to read in a scientific journal! There are endless stories of the harm this man has done to ornithology. The most horrid is the story of the Forest Owlet Athene blewetti in India. For decades this tiny owl was known to science from only six specimens, collected in India between 1873 and 1883. In 1961, Meinertzhagen all of a sudden claimed that he had collected a specimen in 1914 from another locality in India. He deposited the specimen in the British Museum. For decades after the 1960s, expeditions visited this part of India which had had the most recent sighting. They searched for the owlet, without success, and it was declared extinct. Then Dr Pamela Rasmussen did some forensic ornithology. She discovered that one of the six earlier specimens was missing from the museum collection. It had been stolen by Meinertzhagen and he had put a new label on it, with falsified date and place. His diary showed that he had not been in that part of India on that date! She went in search of the owlet in the area where the other specimens came from; on 25 November 1997, she rediscovered it in a degraded woodland. For a fuller version of this sleazy story, see this article in the Pune Mirror. Anyhow, that is a long detour to describe the kind of company that Cecil John Rhodes associated himself with!

Meinertzhagen supplied Rhodes with 18 starlings. He says (and can we trust him?) that he caught them in Britain in winter, which means that they are likely to have been migrants from continental Europe. There is a massive influx of starlings into Britain in late autumn, especially from northwestern Europe where it gets bitterly cold in winter. Britain is only cold.

The precise year that Rhodes set the starlings free at Groote Schuur is not certain, but it is most likely to have been 1897. They took off, both literally and figuratively. But it was not until 1954 that an attempt was made to put on record how it spread. There is a paper in Ostrich, unfortunately not open access, by Jack Winterbottom and Richard Liversidge, called “The European Starling in the south west Cape” (Ostrich 25: 89-96). Their detective work, to trace its spread, consisted of interviewing lots of people. They neatly summarized their findings in this awesome map:

From Winterbottom & Liversidge (1954) The European Starling in the south west Cape. Ostrich 25: 89-96

It was in the suburbs of Cape Town around Groote Schuur within a few years. It colonized Robben Island by 1907. It spread to the far side of the Cape Flats by 1910. The big mountains proved a barrier for a few years, but it got to the far side, to towns like Worcester and Elgin in the 1920s. Along the south coast, the map traces its eastwards spread, taking about three decades to cover the 450 km from Elgin to Plettenberg Bay. It moved northwards along the West Coast more slowly, reaching Clanwillian in 1950. This map effectively shows the distribution of the Common Starling in 1954.

The next snapshot of the distribution of the starling was made by the Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), which collected records mainly from the second half of the 1980s. Here is the map:

The Atlas of Southern African Birds, Volume 2, page 453

It had expanded far to the east, just into KwaZulu-Natal, and not quite as far to the north, reaching Namibia at the town of Oranjemund. Between the time that fieldwork ended and the atlas was published, it had snuck into Lesotho, and by the early 1990s was getting common in Maseru. The SABAP1 species text for the “European Starling” (as it was then known) is here.

The first bird atlas was followed up the the second bird atlas (SABAP2). This project started in July 2007, and the map below produced in June 2021, so it is a 14-year time exposure!

Distribution of the Common Starling, SABAP2 data, July 2007 to June 2021. The interpretation of this map is described here

Common Starlings have continued their march northeastwards. In the gridcells shaded yellow, they are far less frequently encountered than in those shaded dark blue. But they have clearly established themselves across KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and Gauteng. There is still a long way to go to reach Cairo.

The Virtual Museum has 501 photographic record of Common Starlings. Below is a collection of thumb-nails of some of them! In the future, say in 50 years, the photographs which are going to be the most valuable are going to be the ones in which the bird is quite small, and which show the habitat in which it occurred!

Les Underhill
Les Underhill
Prof Les Underhill has been Director of the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) at the University of Cape Town since it started in 1991. Although citizen science in biology is Les’s passion, his academic background is in mathematical statistics. He was awarded his PhD in abstract multivariate analyses in 1973 at UCT and what he likes to say about his PhD is that he solved a problem that no one has ever had. He soon grasped that this was not the field to which he wanted to devote his life, so he retrained himself as an applied statistician, solving real-world problems.