With Eden
A Natural History of
Exotics in America

Kim Todd
Brown trout, dandelions, Kentucky bluegrass, sparrows, starlings, cows, and bees. None of these are native to the United States. "They evolved in Asia, Africa, or Europe, shaped by foreign rivers and grasslands, and have managed to thrive on this far continent," Ms. Todd tells us. "In San Francisco Bay, where trade ships have docked for centuries, 99 percent of all life is exotic. Exotics may have contributed to the decline of 49 percent of threatened and endangered species."

Tinkering with Eden leads us through sixteen case studies, all imported from other places in the world --- including the common street pigeon, the ring-necked peasant, starlings --- and monkeys in Florida (in Wild Animal Parks). She tells of mosquitoes in Hawaii that have destroyed so much of the birdlife there. Then there is the case of the common sea lamprey, certainly one of the most revolting-looking creatures going, that got into the Great Lakes by way of the canal that was built by the Canadians to bypass Niagara Falls. They were first spotted in 1921. The damage?

    The speed at which the lampreys did their work is breathtaking. By the mid-1940s, only twenty years after they first slithered in, no one could ignore the effects on the Great Lakes. The parasites scraped away at lake trout, rainbow trout, and whitefish, their fervor pushing two varieties of chub close to extinction. In Lake Michigan the trout catch plummeted from more than 5,000,000 pounds in 1945 to only 500,000 pounds in 1949. Fishermen on Lake Huron, used to pulling in 1,720,000 pounds of trout, watched their haul dwindle to about 4,000 pounds in the course of twelve years.

All in the name of commerce and progress.

Todd describes some obscure beasts out there that you and I may never have heard of. For example, we have the nutria, which is described as "a large furry rodent with a hairless tail, webbed feet, orange buckteeth, and long whiskers...looking like a mix of beaver, otter, and rat." Did you say orange buckteeth?

Where did they come from? Originally from South America, but, starting a hundred years ago, they began popping up all over the United States. They were originally raised for the fur, but those who went into the nutria fur business usually lost their shirts, if not their fur pants. Those in the Southeastern United States probably came from Avery Island, owned by one Edward McIlhenny. He's the one that created Tabasco to doll up your food and burn your mouth.

A century ago, he was a major --- and one of the first --- conservationists, collecting almost 1,500 bird specimens, as well as papayas, papyrus, camellias, and over 150 varieties of bamboo. Somehow, he got interested in the South American nutria. Somehow he got hold of several pairs. Somehow they escaped into the nearby swamps of Louisiana.

And why should this be such a big deal?

    Because nutrias prefer tubers, they rip up the matted roots that support banks and shorelines, promoting erosion and damaging already scarce wetlands. Marsh turns to open water. Riverbanks and beaches slip away. The nutrias also have a taste for young bald cypress, causing swamps of this distinctive tree to vanish.

Meanwhile, they are breeding like, well, like nutrias, and they've gone from pet to pest in no time at all.

House sparrows? You know those guys who make all that racket and seem to be everywhere, copulating ceaselessly under your rhododendrons. They may have been brought in from Europe by one Eugene Schieffelin, who was also responsible for importing the starling. Why in the world would we want those pesky starlings in the United States? Because they are mentioned in Shakespeare --- and in 1858, Mr. Schieffelin decided (along with many others in what they called "acclimatization societies") that every bird that appears in Shakespeare should have a new home in the New World.

Who to blame it on? Blame it on that hothead Hotspur. In Henry IV, Part I, he says, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak/Nothing but 'Mortimer.'" (Starlings evidently have the ability to speak --- so Mortimer arrives on our shores, and takes over.)

Ms. Todd is an unassuming but reasoned writer, presenting her story with a fairness and a balance in marked contrast to those of us who despair at reading the havoc wrought by these creatures. Most of her stories would have unhappy endings --- if there were any endings --- but as you and I have noticed, the pigeon, sparrow and starling population is in no way diminishing, and the story is far from over. Pigeon flambée? Sparrow and potato soup with chives? Starling à la Hollandaise? According to the author, there have been Louisiana State sponsored nutria cookoffs, and Paul Prudhomme came up with a plate of "deep friend nutria."

The saddest statistic comes from two informal surveys of wild birds conducted on the white house lawn. The first was done by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. He found fifty-six bird species, including "a golden-crowned kinglet, a saw-whet owl, and more than twenty kinds of warblers." Then, says the author,

    Sixty-one years later the Wildlife Society's man spotted only nine species living near the executive mansion. More than half the birds he counted were starlings. Many of the rest were house sparrows.

--- Yet another Exotic,
Lolita Lark

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