Naturalised

“You don’t sound like you’re from the U.K.”

This is a conversation I have frequently with other people about whether I actually came from another country. I was born in Wales in 1990 and have spent most of my life living in the United States, principally in eastern Massachusetts. Over the years, my accent has degraded to the point where you’d be reasonably certain that I’m one of the locals, albeit with a generic American accent rather than the “r” dropping, “ah” emphasizing New England accent. I’ve tried to convince myself I still have a cute British accent, but apart from pronouncing certain words differently and getting mocked for it (apparently Chichester, New Hampshire is pronounced “Chai-chester” here and not “Chi-chester” as in Chichester Cathedral in England), there isn’t much I can do about it.

Even though I seem American because I’ve lived here since I was a small child, I’m not naturally born. After getting my American citizenship in 2009, I’m what you would call a “naturalised” citizen, someone who came to the country through the proper channels and proved they weren’t a terrorist, or a gambler, or planning on practicing polygamy (all real questions that agents will expect you to answer, by the way). When the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is deciding whether to let you into the country or not, they will interview you and your family members separately to make sure you’re on the same page and you’re not hiding anything. I remember one agent asking me during my interview if I belonged to any “groups”. Keep in mind, this was in 2004 when America had been embroiled in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars for only a few years.

Worried that I’d say something stupid, I asked if the American Heart Association was an example of a group we might belong to. The agent paused.

“Are you a member of the American Heart Association?”

“No.” I replied.

“Why did you mention the American Heart Association?”

“I don’t know, I just thought that was a good example of a group.” I said as I trailed off. I just knew I’d sounded silly. But the agent thought it was endearing and continued the interview.

Needless to say, my family and I were let in and have thoroughly enjoyed our life in the United States so far. As human beings, we tend to be tribal and prefer to have members of our own groups nearby whether they be family, friends, personal alliances, or belong to a particular country of origin. It can go even deeper with preferences given towards those with a similar language, similar backgrounds, similar features, colors, voices, and appearances. Our attitude to human immigrants has been a mix of emotions with some pointing to the words on the plaque at the base of our Statue of Liberty. It proclaims that we, as a nation, will accept “…your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” and shouting to the rafters that we are a nation of immigrants. These days, more negative attitudes seem to get press with displays of aggression and hatred abounding in recent years towards immigrants both legal and illegal, refugees of foreign wars and the rejection of anything that isn’t the perceived norm of the majority group in power. We’ve even floated the idea of outright bans of certain groups of people that can enter into a country from the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the constant redefining of who can be considered a citizen (for a long time it was who looked “white”), and modern policies excluding people based on xenophobic policies.

All this arguing about whether a particular group really belongs is interesting to me simply because, for the longest time, we didn’t offer the same amount of scrutiny to other members of the natural world. For centuries, humans have argued over which part of the world had the best species and whether their introduction could improve an area for the better, usually with human needs and desires in mind.

It’s important that we define our terms when talking about introduced species. A naturalised species can be different from an invasive one and in some cases, the former can become the latter. According to Merriam-Webster, “to naturalize” is “to cause (something such as a plant) to become established as if native.” This description describes plants like burdock (Arctium spp,), dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) , Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), and yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) as well as countless other introduced species. An introduced species only becomes invasive when it causes harm in its environment, usually at the expense of other species.

If you’ve been to a campground in the Northeast in the past decade or so, you’ll have noticed signs and notices warning people about bringing firewood over the state borders due to risk of spreading non-native invasives like Asian long-horned beetles (Anoplophora glabripennis) and emerald ash borers (Agrilus planipennis). These insects were introduced by accident when contaminated shipments of wood pallets were shipped to New York City in 1996 (ALB) and to Detroit in 2002 (EAB) from China and Korea. These pests have since spread over most of the eastern United States and have devoured and destroyed millions of trees. It’s hoped by many scientists, foresters, and concerned citizens that the cold weather from the polar vortex will have frozen out these obnoxious invaders for good.

House sparrow pair on a farm in Maine

While headlines often blare about large toothy exotics like Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) or northern snakeheads (Channa argus), perhaps the most relevant example I can think of is the tale of two birds that were introduced to the United States in the late 1800’s. House sparrows (Passer domesticus) and European starlings (Sturnis vulgaris) are easily two of the most hated animals in the United States. Both were introduced with the hope that they would enhance the local fauna, and in the case of the sparrows, help farmers by eating insect pests. Their original range spans most of the Old World and as people traveled it, so did they.

House sparrows live up to their name and anyone who has spent time in a built up area will have noticed them looking for crumbs near cafes, squabbling near bushes in parking lot verges, and stuffing all manner of nesting materials into small holes in roofs and other tight spaces. I’ve even seen them manage to nest in traffic lights from time to time. Their ubiquitous nature means that they are frequently the first bird we see when were outside and often the first birds people are aware of when they start noticing nature in cities and other urban areas.

Immature first year Eurasian starling in Pennsylvania

Starlings were introduced for a weird reason: Shakespeare. Back in the 1800’s, there were several organizations in the United States that were dedicated to “acclimitization”. Simply put, the idea was to “naturalise” animals and plants from Europe and other parts of the world to enhance or improve the natural environment. Eugene Scheiffelin of the New York Acclimitization Society proposed and executed a plan where he believed that the birds of America would be greatly enhanced if they were accompanied by all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. I told you it was a weird reason. As Anders Halverson put it in An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World;

“And so today, because they were mentioned in a line in Henry IV, the North American continent is now inundated with starlings that Scheiffelin first successfully imported from England in 1890.”

In addition to their presence on the landscape, both species bully native nesting songbirds like eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) from their nests, often destroying the eggs and chicks before moving in and using the nest box themselves. Only after realizing that no one was actually getting along (something that seems to take far too long in most cases) and in an effort to control their numbers, the non-native sparrows and starlings have been excluded from protection by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Even the feral pigeon (Columba livia) that people see regularly nestling on the edges of buildings aren’t protected and like the starlings and sparrows, can be eliminated from the skies using all manner of vile and cruel traps, poisons, spikes, and other exclusionary devices.

Since the introduction of sparrow and starling, more birds have been inserted into the American landscape. In the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, the Himalayan snowcock (Tetraogallus himalayensis), a large grey bird that resembles what the offspring of a hybrid between a snow-covered rock and Jersey Giant chicken would look like was introduced for upland game hunters in the early 1960s. In metropolitan areas like New York City, Miami, San Diego, and Phoenix, flocks of parrots native to various tropical regions of the world overwhelm bird feeders, invade public spaces, and even build elaborate nests on telephone poles. If you visit the island of Hawaii, you are more likely to be greeted by an introduced red-crested cardinal (Paroaria coronata) or red avadavat (Amandava amandava) than a native songbird like the I’iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) or even the state bird like the ne’ne (Branta sandvicensis).

There are even naturalised birds that never lived in parts of the U.S. until people stepped in. Originally, house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) were only found west of the Rockies and only after a shipment of the birds was released at a New York City airport, did the populous eastern side of the country become acquainted with the birds. Those birds were to be sold under the name “Hollywood finches” in an effort to cash in off the mystique surrounding the growing entertainment industry in California. It’s amazing how far human beings will go to make a quick buck. Prior to the 1940s, the citizens of New Hampshire would have been able to recognize their state bird, the purple finch (H. purpureus), without much trouble. However,
a New York City pet shop owner had other ideas. In an effort to avoid fines and possible jail time for smuggling native songbirds for a life of captivity, he released the small flock of house finches from their cages. Those house finches settled down and eventually spread across the states to reconnect with their ancestors along the Rockies and Pacific Coast. Sixty years after their release, they have in their own way become “naturalised” and have been confusing birders ever since.

For centuries, songbirds by the thousands have been captured and stuffed in cages for the amusement of humans. I remember traveling to Paris when I was twelve and seeing a man selling songbirds in an open air market. All around me, feral pigeons bobbed their heads as they scanned the ground for bits of refuse and scraps to eat. Chirps from a nearby house sparrow and the whirring whistle of a male starling rang in the square. The market had stalls dedicated to fresh produce, meats and fresh fish, trinkets and knock off brands, and all manner of tourists looking for gifts to buy. The man selling the songbirds had the cages mounted on a wall, filled with birds from all over the world. Little zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) beeped at one another, while a chunky Java sparrow (Lochura oryzivora) dozed lazily on its perch.

In one of the cages, there was a male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) impatiently flitting from perch to perch in a wire cage no bigger than a Folger’s coffee can. I don’t know where that bird is now, but I know he would have been happier flitting through the brambles of a field in Virginia, than to be trapped in a cage in Paris.

He reminded me of home. Not the United Kingdom where I claim my heritage, but in the United States where I grew up, and where my most familiar environments are: the waters of the Sudbury River Valley, the forests of oak and pine, and the old fields where cardinals and finches from both sides of the country flit and feed on seeds and berries from a variety of native and non-native flora. The country has changed much since the first colonists landed here and started changing the landscape for all inhabitants. As we learn more about our impacts on the natural environment from introduced non-natives, the more we become responsible for how we engage with the natural world and what we want our world to look like in the future. If we don’t pay attention now, we’ll lose the opportunity to seek those insights sooner rather than later.

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