It seems bizarre to even think it but there was a time when the Skylark Alauda arvensis, the famous bird with the beautiful voice that populates the English countryside, was well-established in Brooklyn and one could hear its “profuse strains of unpremeditated art” from above whilst wandering around Flatbush. Skylarks in Flatbush? From the vantage point of the early years of the 21st century this seems absolutely absurd but large sections of Flatbush were rural in character until well into the 20th century and Skylarks persisted in Brooklyn until 1913. But how did Skylarks end up in Brooklyn?
The tale of House Sparrows and European Starlings being introduced into the United States are well known, with House Sparrows being introduced repeatedly before becoming established and with European Starlings famously being introduced by Eugene Schieffelin in 1890 and 1891, allegedly because he wanted all of the birds that appeared in Shakespeare’s plays to be present in the Americas.* Schieffelin, who had also led efforts to introduce House Sparrows into New York City, served as chairman of the American Acclimatization Society (AAS), which had as its mission the introduction of foreign fauna to America’s fertile lands and thus has a tenuous connection to the Brooklyn Skylarks. At the annual meeting of the AAS in 1877 it was reported that “in 1874, Mr Henry Reiche set loose 50 pairs of English skylarks but they all crossed the East River and settled at Newtown and Canarsie.”
Newtown and Canarsie are in different parts of Brooklyn, with Newtown being in northwest Brooklyn** and Canarsie being in southeast Brooklyn. In between the two is Flatbush so it seems that the Skylarks of Brooklyn could have had as their origin birds released in Central Park in 1874.
But John Bull, in his Birds of the New York Area, published in 1964, indicates that the Skylarks were introduced to Flatbush thirteen years later then the records of the AAS indicate that they were introduced to Brooklyn:
SKYLARK (Alauda arvensis)*B
Introduced: A Palearctic species, the nominate race introduced in 1887 in the Flatbush and Flatlands sections of Brooklyn. The Skylark — a bird of open grassland — seemed well established by 1898 and was present continually until at least 1907. According to Braislin (1907), its song could be heard from March until October. With rapid development of open land, it had disappeared completely by 1913.
The rest of the entry gives details about specimens now at the American Museum but no indication is given as to where, exactly, Bull learned the exact year of the Skylarks‘ release. The account in his authoritative Birds of New York State is essentially identical to the above excerpt, though it does include the information that the Skylark was also introduced to the lower Hudson Valley, an introduction that was also doomed to failure in the long term.
The “Braislin” referenced by Bull is Dr. William C. Braislin, who published, in 1907, A List of the Birds of Long Island, New York, from which a few more bits of information about the Skylarks in Brooklyn can be gleaned:
Apparently a permanent resident at Flatbush and vicinity…Imported birds have been liberated in or about New York several times during the past quarter century. The blizzard of March, 1888, was supposed to have destroyed the colony and no birds were noted for several years. It was later found to be reestablished and therefore some question exists as to its having been actually exterminated. Birds from elsewhere may have become reestablished but it is more probable that a small number survived the rigors of that memorable season. It is possible in view of the seeming absence of birds in winter that they migrate southward, but where they move to, is not known. The possibilities of ultimate survival of this small colony, around whose chosen range residential streets are rapidly closing in, offers a field for interesting speculation.
Though Braislin thought it more likely that the birds had not been wiped out by the blizzard of 1888 it is interesting that he thought that the population could have been augmented or replaced after the blizzard by “Birds from elsewhere.” Braislin’s speculations do not really matter to us, however, as he does not help us figure out from where the Skylarks originated to begin with, though his time frame does roughly match Bull’s. His speculation about the likelihood of the Skylark colony persisting in face of development were, of course, spot-on, and six years after his list was published the Skylark was gone from Flatbush, a victim not of harsh weather but of habitat destruction.
A letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1905 that was written by J Yates Peek brings more confusion about the origin of the Brooklyn birds into the mix. Skylarks are said to have been present “in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn for some forty years” which would, of course, push the date of the Skylarks‘ introduction back to 1865. The discrepancy in dates might be attributed to the vagaries of memory, but the letter-writer gives details, even naming “Rev. John McKillop, an ordained local elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church” as the man who “brought the skylarks over and kept them for awhile in a large wire aviary on his grounds finally taking them out into the then sparsely settled Flatbush district or village and letting them fly away.”
So when, exactly, did the Skylark get introduced to Brooklyn? It looks as if the exact date likely lost to history, but it is pretty clear that it was in the latter third of the 19th century. More then one introduction happened and by the turn of the century the population was thriving, just in time to be destroyed by development over the next thirteen years. Though it would be nice to hear the song of the Skylark over, say Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, it would be even nicer to hear native grassland species there. After all, it is not as if they belong in New York State.
Though the Skylark was doomed to extirpation in New York, a small population still exists in another of the many locations it was introduced to in North America, on Vancouver Island, and there is a small, but steady stream of birding visitors who go specifically to see Skylarks there.
*It should be noted that Schieffelin was not the first to try to introduce the starling to the United States he was just the first to do so successfully. Also, there is no actual evidence that Schieffelin’s motivations had anything to do with Shakespeare.
**Assuming that by “Newtown” what is meant is the area around New Town Creek, which serves as the boundary between Queens and Brooklyn at the western extremity of the two boroughs.