Shakespeare Is For The Birds

The following is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature reference specialist at the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room, Humanities and Social Sciences Division. This is the third in a small series of blog posts on Shakespeare at the Library of Congress.

Image of Shakespeare with bird from: The birds of Shakespeare; critically examined, explained, and illustrated by James Edmund Harting. London : J. Van Voorst, 1871.

Image of Shakespeare with bird from: The Birds of Shakespeare; Critically Examined, Explained, and Illustrated by James Edmund Harting. London : J. Van Voorst, 1871. [From HathiTrust Digital Library]

During my years as a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, I’ve received many questions about Shakespeare. Some researchers are looking for literary criticism on a specific play; other students want Shakespeare translated into “real” English. I’ve gotten inquiries on Shakespeare quotations: “What quote goes something like this: ‘A _ a _ my country for a _’” ?*

Before the Internet age, I once sent someone references from French dictionaries available in Shakespeare’s time–or at least from the dictionaries we had available in our Rare Book and Special Collections Division. She was looking for all words starting with ver to prove that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, had salted clues all through Hamlet to show that he was Shakespeare. If you saw the 2011 film Anonymous or have read any of the 80+ books we have cataloged under the subject Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616–Authorship–Oxford theory, you’ll know that the Earl of Oxford is a leading contender in the authorship question–who really wrote Shakespeare’s works.

And once I had an inquiry from a couple who were here at the Library in person wanting “to see something that no one else had ever seen” that would prove that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. I explained that any number of people would have seen the things in the Library of Congress as they were certainly reviewed by catalogers, if not by researchers by now. They were not pleased with my response and went away muttering that I was probably a Stratfordian–one of those who believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Other patrons have asked about various themes in Shakespeare’s works: disguises, numerology, witches and ghosts, medicine, religion, flowers. Recently I received a fascinating question about birds in Shakespeare through our Ask a Librarian service:

Dave Taft from the NY Times wrote the following on Jan 8, 2016: “The first European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) were deliberately introduced to the United States around 1890. The thinking of Eugene Schieffelin, chairman of the American Acclimatization Society, was that any bird worthy of inclusion in Shakespeare’s works deserved a place in North America. And so, executing this dubious biological notion — the bird gets a passing mention in Act I of “Henry IV, Part I” — the society released about 60 birds in Central Park. About 35 pairs of starlings were released on the West Coast around the same time by the Portland Song Bird Club.”

Is it possible to find out what other birds from Shakespeare’s works were brought into the United States besides the European starling and where these birds are referenced in his works?

Starling illustration: From The birds of Shakespeare, by Sir Archibald Geikie. Glasgow, J. Maclehose and sons, 1916

Starling illustration from The Birds of Shakespeare, by Sir Archibald Geikie. Glasgow, J. Maclehose and sons, 1916. [Image from HathiTrust Digital Library]

We now know a lot more about the dangers of introducing non-native species, but in the 19th century acclimatization (or acclimatisation) societies were all the rage with members wanting to import all sorts of European animals and plants to the United States and British colonies for homesick immigrants.

The starling introduction was quite successful but ultimately became an ecological disaster throughout the Americas. It seems about once a decade The New York Times produces an article on what a menace starlings are with other cities’ newspapers chiming in on the problems these birds have caused. Virtually all of these articles allude to Eugene Schieffelin’s idea of introducing birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. Dozens of books and articles perpetuate this notion, though a few of the sources say this connection has never been verified.

While we have several subscription databases for finding 19th century newspaper and magazine articles available on the Library of Congress’s premises, we also have a wonderful site that is freely available online. Chronicling America is a national project to digitize newspapers from across the country from 1836-1922. A search on this bird topic led to articles stating that Schieffelin was responsible for importing English sparrows to take care of the caterpillar infestation of trees in Madison Square where he lived. This happened several decades before the starling attempts.

“The English Sparrow.” Daily Globe, September 11, 1882, p. 2.

Excerpt from “The English Sparrow,” Daily Globe, September 11, 1882, p. 2.

Mr. Schieffelin was an active member of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society so it was fitting that their New York Genealogical and Biographical Record published an obituary in October, 1906, now available online through the HathiTrust Digital Library, another wonderful, free, full-text site useful for conducting historical research. From the obituary, we learn Mr. Schieffelin worked for the family drug firm, was an artist, an enthusiastic genealogist, and was the first to import English sparrows: “He imported and liberated many other species of birds, among them the starling.” There’s no mention of the Shakespeare connection to the birds or a fascination with Shakespeare.

Again, I turned to Chronicling America to learn more about the American Acclimatization Society. A bill was passed in Albany, New York on March 24, 1871, incorporating the Society: “Objects of said Society are the introduction and acclimatization of such foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting.”

Unfortunately, we do not have any transactions or proceedings from the American Acclimatization Society to verify the Shakespeare-bird connection. We have documents from the Queensland, Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand, Acclimatisation Societies, as well as a brief report from the Cincinnati Acclimatization Society on their successes with various birds. Cincinnati was ready to spend $5,000 to import European birds, particularly singing birds and insect eaters.

Song sparrow. Color engraving by R. Havell, after drawing by John J. Audubon. Prints and Photographs Division.

Song sparrow. Color engraving by R. Havell, after drawing by John J. Audubon. Prints and Photographs Division. //

An article appearing in November, 1877 in The New York Times and in Forest and Stream reported on a regular meeting of the American Acclimatization Society on November 14th chaired by Mr. Schieffelen. A Mr. Conklin “read a paper on acclimatization with special reference to birds” and reported on specific people letting loose English sparrows, English chaffinches, blackbirds, Java sparrows, English skylarks, and English pheasants. The Society freed starlings and Japanese finches the previous July, and Mr. Conklin suggested that additional efforts should be continued with the English titmouse, chaffinch, blackbird, and the robin redbreast.

While I was able to provide the patron with some suggestions of other kinds of birds that were imported in addition to the starling, I could not prove the link between Mr. Schieffelen or the American Acclimatization Society and Shakespeare with any primary sources. I’m still wondering where all those other article authors got their source as no citations were provided, but my imagination conjures a scene of Mr. Schieffelen arguing eloquently for the importance of William Shakespeare–with or without birds.

For the second part of the question, it was easy to provide information on Shakespeare’s specific references to birds. There have been a number of books written just on Shakespeare’s birds. They show up in our online catalog under the subject
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616—Knowledge—Ornithology.  Several of the records have links to the HathiTrust Digital Library where you can read the full text of the books.

“Starlings” by Bondesgaarde on Flickr.

“Starlings” by Bondesgaarde on Flickr.

The books have greater or lesser degrees of information and illustrations about each type of bird, but virtually all of them contain a chart or appendix listing specific references to Shakespeare’s poems and plays where the birds appear.

In 21st century research, one can, of course, skip these books and simply conduct a general Web search. At “Shakespeare’s Ornithology” one can find listings by play or poem or listings by type of bird with references to the Shakespeare source.

Some of the lists have a few variations but it appears that Shakespeare’s works featured the following birds:

blackbird, bunting, buzzard, chough, cock, cormorant, crow, cuckoo, daw, dive-dapper, dove, duck, eagle, falcon, finch, fowl, goose, guinea hen, hedge sparrow, heron, jay, kestrel, kingfisher, kite, lapwing, lark, loon, magpie, mallard, martin (martlet) nightingale, osprey, ostrich, owl, paraquito, parrot, partridge, peacock, pelican, pheasant, phoenix, pigeon, popinjay, quail, raven, rook, sea gull, snipe, sparrow, starling, swallow, swan, thrush, turkey, vulture, woodcock, and wren.

As for importation to the United States, seen any phoenixes lately?

*And finally for the quotation seeker mentioned in the first paragraph, a different sort of animal was employed. “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Act V, Scene IV, King Richard III.


  1. Karen Degerberg
    August 16, 2016 at 9:32 am

    Loved your article and video! Karen D.

  2. Babatunde Williams
    March 9, 2022 at 6:18 pm

    My poem was nominated The National Library of poetry USA for the finals in 1992 as one of the poem of all times titled “The Rose” a rose as fair as ever saw the north” & ever since then if l won the competition or work of art was published, please contact me… Thanks

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