The Invasive Species Debate Is Not Always Simple

Where starlings are concerned, I thought my heart was a stone.

Starlings descend in great flocks on orchards and farms, decimating crops and dining on feed meant for livestock. In the air, they can bring down airplanes. Their excrement fouls city streets and walkways. And that’s just the nuisance they cause to people. European starlings also outcompete native birds for roosts and nest holes. What is there to love about a bird whose presence causes so many problems? A bird who doesn’t even belong here?

And yet, despite my deep environmental convictions, I have somehow fallen in love with starlings.

I love the gorgeous starry plumage that emerges after they molt. I love the way they can mimic nearly anything, including an elaborate array of construction noises that they have learned in this neighborhood of unceasing construction. I especially love the way they gather in great swooping, looping wintertime flocks, turning the sky into an endless blue stage for their endlessly inventive performances.

As the discourse around nonnative plants and animals grows increasingly strident, I’ve been thinking a lot about the starling-softened stone that was once my heart.

In late March, a New York chapter of Wild Ones, a national nonprofit that advocates for native plants and natural landscapes, posted an explanation for why planting spicebush is better than planting forsythia. Like forsythia, spicebush adds a pop of yellow color to the early spring garden. Like forsythia, spicebush can create a natural screen for backyard privacy. But unlike forsythia, which is both nonnative and sterile, spicebush flowers feed pollinators in springtime. Its leaves feed spicebush-swallowtail caterpillars in summer. Its berries feed a host of songbirds in fall.

One of these plants can restore a garden to its original purpose as a biodiverse ecosystem. The other simply offers a brief display of yellow flowers.

These are incontrovertible facts. Native creatures evolved to recognize native plants as food and habitat. At a time when insect populations are plummeting (in part because of the ubiquity of nonnative plants) and two-thirds of North American birds are at risk of extinction, there is no good reason to plant a flower that offers nothing to the wild world.

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