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Those screeches that shatter the evening calm downtown are really the best way to scare off mess-producing birds.
The European starling is not an unattractive bird, but in large numbers they can be a nuisance.
Monday, September 23, 2013
Q: I was riding my bike downtown yesterday when I heard this horribly loud screech. It freaked me out for a second before I remembered that someone fires off those things to supposedly scare off the starlings downtown. My questions are: Why are they doing this? Do starlings damage property? Who is paying for this? Is it an effective method? Isn't there something better?
Matt Ames, Roanoke
A. I've had that happen to me as well, Matt. Walking downtown, looking at the buildings, eating a hot dog from the Wiener Stand, when all of the sudden, BANG! SCREEEEEEEEEEEEE!
After you get off the sidewalk, you look around, and can't tell where it's coming from. Just as you calm down and wipe the chili from your shirt, BANG! SCREEEEEEEEEEE!
You pick up your hot dog off the ground, look around to see if anyone saw you drop it, think, "3 second rule!" and finish it off, only to have the noise happen again.
So what's it all about? Turns out that those pesky common starlings (Latin term, Sturnus vulgaris) that swarm in autumn evenings and like to gather in large groups in trees, can be a problem.
When they land in the trees downtown they leave a mess on the sidewalks and cars and interfere with the outdoor dining experience at the sidewalk tables at places like Metro and Flanary's. They poop on the concrete tables in the farmers market. To quote from reporter Duncan Adams' 2003 story on the same subject, "Shoe-tracked guano and veal parmigiano don't mix." Nice work, Duncan.
They tend to gather just before sunset. I've seen them dip and dive in dense flocks from the rooftop of a 12-story building downtown, and from that vantage point it can be pretty majestic, despite what's going on at street level.
The solution? Send a team of guys equipped with pyrotechnic noise flares to fire into the trees, scaring the critters to other parts of town without a budget for such things. While shooting off noise flares might seem extreme, it does the job, according to Tina Workman, president and CEO of Downtown Roanoke Inc. DRI contracts with a U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services unit, which walks through the core of downtown startling the starlings until they give up and go elsewhere.
Where did the birds, not native to North America, come from? Blame a New Yorker. According to a 1990 article in the New York Times, an eccentric drug manufacturer named Eugene Schieffelin wanted to introduce every bird mentioned by Shakespeare (they appear in Henry IV, Part 1) into the U.S., so over the course of two years he imported and released 100 pairs of starlings into Central Park, and these birds spread far and wide until some of them found their way to downtown Roanoke. Thanks, Eugene.
They've been linked to the spread of fungal lung ailments and toxoplasmosis, which is harmful to pregnant women. They've been blamed for at least one plane crash - a flock was pureed by the propellers of a Lockheed Electra in 1960, killing 62 people. Their numbers are decreasing in Europe, where there are fewer insects for them to feed their young than there used to be, but they are making up for it here. Today their numbers are estimated to be above 150 million in North America.
Are there other solutions? Some cities have tried to introduce falcons to kill pigeons and starlings, but the success has been pretty limited, since there's no way to keep the raptors in place. Poison and traps are even more problematic for obvious reasons, so humane starter pistols and noisemakers seem the best bet.
Take heart, though. Workman says that the job seems to be done for this year, as the starlings have moved on. It usually takes less than a week of gunfire to persuade them to go somewhere else, like Vinton or Salem, until next year.
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Look for Tom Landon's column on Mondays. Visit the blog at blogs.roanoke.com/whatsonyourmind/.
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